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Helping Churches Care: Grief Ministry in Action
In 2002, my life was turned upside down by the sudden death of my father. After his death I felt lost and often alone in my grief. Many people meant well, but no one really knew what to say or do. No one from my home church reached out to me beyond sending sympathy cards. Going to church and other public functions became a dreaded chore. Many people asked, “How are you?” but did not want to listen to the response. After a couple of weeks it felt as though people forgot about my grief and even stopped asking how I was doing.
My experience eventually led me into chaplaincy and graduate work where I learned: “Pain is intrinsically alienating. It tends to make us feel like strangers to others (even family), strangers to ourselves (in terms of confusion), and sometimes it can even make God seem like a stranger” (Zurheide, 1997, 16). Chaplaincy introduced me to many people who had experienced the same loneliness in grief that I experienced. In an interview for a class, one woman told me that going back to church was the hardest she had to do, because everyone there was happy and she felt there was no place for her sadness. At that point my research began to focus on the grief experience within the context of church ministry. This article is based on the research for my doctoral project, “Helping Churches Care: Expressing Grief in Protestant Evangelical Churches.
Qualitative research methods were used to conduct this project. Five people from various backgrounds, genders, and ages within the Protestant Evangelical faith tradition were interviewed. Each person had experienced grief while they were active members of a church community. The losses ranged from three to nineteen years after their loved one died.
The group of participants represents diverse loss experiences and age groups: Subject A, 57, female, 78-year-old mother died in hospice 14 months after her cancer recurred; Subject B, 69, female, husband died unexpectedly at 67; Subject C, 27, male, mother died after two years of treatment for breast cancer at 50; and Subjects D and E, couple in their mid-sixties, 19-year-old daughter was raped and murdered in a carjacking 20 years ago.
Each participant was a member of different Protestant churches in Georgia and Mississippi. Four of the five participants had been actively involved in one church for an extended period of time prior to the death of their loved one. One participant had been in transition from one church to another, but her mother was actively involved in a church for many years.
The interviews took the form of a life review of the participant's grief journey. The term life review was first coined by Robert Butler as a “personal process by which a person evaluates his or her life as it nears its end” (Butler, 2012). More recently, an adapted bereavement life review has been successfully utilized in grief therapy by Ando et. al. (2010) in “Effects of Bereavement Life Review on Spiritual Well-Being and Depression” (Ando, M. et. al., 2010, pp. 453-459). The interviews included the circumstances surrounding the loved one's death, their experience of that death, and the support they received during their initial grief process. The specific questions asked were: (a) who provided grief support, (b) what support was most helpful, (c) were there any unmet needs during their grief period, (d) what additional support would have liked to have received, and (e) what role did their ministers and church play in providing support. Common themes emerged regarding 1) grief reactions, 2) importance of faith, and 3) sources of support.
Results and Discussion
The participants recalled experiencing many typical grief reactions (see Attig, How We Grieve, p. 43-44, for summary of grief symptoms); however, two reactions in particular were common to all participants: a strong desire to stay busy and ongoing waves of grief.
Each participant experienced a need to be busy in the initial months of grief. The participants expressed the lack of control and helplessness of the grief situation created anxiety and restlessness. Staying busy brought a sense of order out of chaos and distraction from the difficult task of grieving. Doing normal activities such as going back to work, paying bills, taking care of their family’s needs, cleaning and fixing things helped created a sense of normalcy, purpose, and mental and spiritual satisfaction.
Parkes (1986) describes this need to keep busy as a part of the pining phase of grief stating, “Their search for ‘something to do’ is bound to fail because the things they can do are not, in fact, what they want to do at all. What they want is to find the lost person” (Parkes, C.M. 1986, p. 67). Subject A reported feeling helpless after her mother died, because she had no task to do after her mother’s death. She said, “Everybody came and got everything and it was all done in an hour and fifteen minutes. It was like she wasn’t there. We rearranged the furniture, but it still just felt like-poof!-and she was gone” (interview, May 15, 2011).
Continual waves of grief
Many grief theorists describe grief as happening in stages or phases; however the participants expressed that grief came more like waves, at times catching them by surprise. Subject E described her experience:
Grief is like an ocean that you go and you think, ‘Okay high tide's at 4 o'clock’; but you don't know that there's a storm off. And so high tide comes in at 3:00 that day, and you're totally blindsided, because you're out on the beach with your sand stuff and you're sitting out there and all of a sudden you're washed over in the waves that you didn't even know were coming. (interview, October 22, 2011)
Sullender (1985) describes grief as waves of pain stating, “The griever’s suffering is never constant. The waves of pain are alternated by lulls of momentary rest. Initially, of course, in acute grief situations, the waves are intense and frequent” (Sullender, S., 1985, p. 56). Over time the intensity of the pain lessens and the waves of pain become more infrequent.
Waves of grief continue for months and sometimes years after the actual death occurs. Subject A described finding her mother’s notes as “cosmic sabotage” saying, “Every time I opened a drawer, every time I opened a book … for six months I’d bump into notes. I’m about to get this scab healed over and then here comes another note” (interview, May 15, 2011). Subject E shared, “It’ll be our twentieth Christmas without her, but there are days that I get up, and—you don’t know what it is that you’re going to see or what you’re going to find when you’re cleaning out a drawer or a jewelry box—and you find a little two dollar pin that she gave you for Christmas one year or something and I will cry all day” (interview, October 22, 2011).
Grief is something you learn to cope with on a daily basis, because the loss of that person will always be present. Subject A stated, “It was really difficult for me to realize that the world was still moving, you know. You think, ‘Excuse me, how can life go on?’” (interview, May 15, 2011). Subject D stated, “Life is different, and I don’t mean this tritely. I think God does give you grace to go on, but life’s different. There’s always that sensitivity to what could have been and is not. You don’t dwell on it. It doesn’t dictate all your decisions, but it’s always there” (interview, October 22, 2011).
Importance of Faith
Religion provides, “an interpretive framework, in which suffering becomes understandable and bearable” (Wuthnow, 1980, p. 510). The belief in a God who comforts and guides, the belief in life after death, and the social interaction with other church members provide support and meaning for the bereaved. All participants struggled with finding meaning for the suffering, but all expressed a sense of hope.
“Amid suffering, hardships or severe loss experiences, people inevitably ask why: Why has this happened to me? What is the meaning or purpose of this experience?” (Sullender, 1985, p. 98). “The drive to know, the compulsion to make sense of suffering evokes the question.... If God is all-powerful and is really in charge of the universe, why is God causing or allowing me to suffer?” (Aden and Hughes, 2002, p. 13). Four predominant possibilities arise within Protestant faith: (a) it is “God’s will,” (b) God is trying to teach them something, (c) God is testing them, or (d) God is punishing them (Zurheide,1997, pp. 20–23).
Subject E said, “There were people, and some from church, who were at times very offended when I would talk about being angry or ‘Why would God allow this to happen?’ I believe firmly that ‘why’ is not a four-letter word literally or spiritually—that God does not have a problem with ‘why’” (interview, October 22, 2011). Subject B recalled his feelings after his mother’s death stating:
I couldn’t understand why, and I still don’t—why God had to take her. The only thing I really struggled with was the lives that she had touched and the possibilities that she could still touch if she was here today. (Interview, September 2, 2011)
The participants who experienced their loved one’s death as a result of illness believed the death was a part of God’s will. Subject B stated, “It’s not for me to understand—and I realize that now—why God had to take her, but his plan is better than mine, of course. I knew that God knew what he was doing. We prayed several times as a family that his will be done and his will was done.” He also questioned whether suffering was a type of punishment stating, “I had never known her to do anything wrong as far as unbiblical or serious sinful nature. I don’t know why he would let someone struggle like that for two years with cancer and fight the battle she fought and suffer like she did” (interview, September 2, 2011).
Others believe that suffering is part of life. Subject D did not believe his daughter’s murder was God’s plan. He stated, “Murder is never God’s will. For a nineteen-year-old girl to be raped and murdered is never God’s will” (Subject D, interview, October 22, 2011). Subject A reported she never asked “Why?” her mother died and she never lost faith in God, but she did question the care of the church. She said her experience left her with a “distaste for the business of the church.” She stated, “The absence of other people there almost was a testimony to the church. There was no demonstration that anybody cared” (interview, May 15, 2011).
Gerstenberger and Schrage state:
Without hope, suffering cannot be endured.... The pressure of suffering, then, does not demolish hope, but strengthens and radicalizes it, precisely because a hope that is, so to speak, given a hard slap in the face by painful earthly reality bonds one all the more firmly to God and grows more sure. (Gerstenberger & Schrage, 1977, p. 218)
The participants expressed finding hope in God’s presence in the midst of their pain and in seeing their loved one again in heaven. Subject C said, “When I stayed by myself I felt like I was not by myself, because I always felt God’s presence. And I still feel that way. God has wrapped his arms around me so I’m not afraid of anything now” (interview, October 21, 2011). Subject D described feeling God’s presence during his grief saying:
It was on that trip home when I knew that [she] was dead, and I’m having this conversation with God and I’m saying, ‘Either faith-this spiritual journey that I’ve been on-either it’s been real now or I can’t make it.’ I mean, there was a possibility of despair. And I had-in the midst of grief-I had this assurance, ‘It’s real. I’m here.’ I think Paul said it well, ‘There is grief, but there is grief with hope.’ (interview, October 22, 2011)
Death was not seen as “final” rather “just a temporary separation” (Klass, 1993, p. 64). Subject E said that her daughter is “doing a sight check in heaven” and said, “I know where [my daughter] is. When I get to heaven I want to see Jesus, but I want [my daughter] to take me to him” (interview, October 22, 2011).
Sources of Support
The participants received support from family, friends, ministers, and counselors with whom they had long-standing relationships. The participants agreed the most helpful support was the presence of others who were willing to walk with them on their journey of grief and not be scared away by the pain of it all. These people made simple gestures such as: asked them out for a meal, brought food to their home, sat with them in church, listened to their story, did dishes, made phone calls, offered help without the bereaved having to ask for it, and had little or no expectations of the bereaved to “feel better” or “get over it.”
Family and friends
Subject A said her husband and children supported her by simply letting her cry (interview, May 15, 2011). Subject B’s wife was his primary source of support. He said, “She stayed with me through the whole thing—stood beside and was holding my hand the whole way” (interview, September 2, 2011). Subject E said she could not talk to anyone in her family, because they needed her to take care of them; however, she did have a close friend saying, “Because of the depth of our friendship I could be mad or ugly or angry or whatever and she didn’t think any differently about me” (interview, October 22, 2011).
Unfortunately many grieving people describe feelings of abandonment as their grief process continues. “After a few weeks, most people assume that the life of the grieving person is nearly back to normal as their lives are so they go on about their business and forget that their friend is in terrible pain” (Glanz, 2007, p. 108). Subject E had a woman say to her, “I know you haven’t heard from me since [your daughter] died, but I just didn’t know what to say or what to do so I just didn’t do anything” (interview, October 22, 2011).
Ministers and church
Some participants were comforted by the close relationship they had with their minister. The couple grieving the death of their daughter felt well supported by their ministers, saying their pastors were present at their home as soon as they found out about their daughter’s murder. The minister spread the word throughout the church community and soon others arrived to be with the family. The mother said, “It was nice having people there in the daytime to help so that they could take care of the food that came in, so that I didn’t have to worry with any of that” (Subject E, interview, October 22, 2011).
One young man stated their family received constant support from their church throughout their mother’s illness and death. He said, “They brought food just about twice a week, three times a week before she died. As small as that church is everybody has a part to play and everybody has a role to play, and if that person is not there something is missed out of that church and out of that service. So, we were basically a big family.” He recalled the experience of attending church following his mother’s funeral saying, “They cried like we did. They stayed right beside us, side-by-side, hugged our neck[s]. They grieved with us; I guess is what you’d say” (Subject B, interview, September 2, 2011).
Unfortunately, the church is not always seen as a place for grief healing. “There is a growing tendency for Christians to absent themselves from church the Sunday after a death in the family—for fear they will cry in church” (Sweet, 1994, p. 61). Many grieving people say that going back to church was one of the hardest things they had to do. Some people chose not to go back to church or changed churches, because they felt so awkward and alone. McConnell writes:
All too often within the Christian community bereaved individuals are not given permission to feel and express the deep pain that may remain.... Sometimes the church becomes a challenging place for people to continue their grieving, either because fellow believers wish to rush them beyond the pain of loss to the joy of heaven, or because it is simply difficult for the acutely grieving person to participate in the celebrations of the faith community. (McConnell, 1998, pp. 41–42)
Subject A reported she did not receive support from her church in the year following her mother’s death beyond receiving a sympathy card from a deacon. She said, “When I went back to [church] for the next worship service lots of people came up and said they were sorry to hear about my mom leaving and those kinds of things. Of course in my brain I was like, ‘Well, I’m glad you’re sorry that she’s gone, but where were you two weeks ago?’” (interview, May 15, 2011). She reported she has never gotten involved in another church on an “intimate level” since her mom’s death.
Other grieving people
The participants all expressed a desire to be with other people who had experienced the same sort of loss as they did. One woman said, “I think I would have liked to have had a friend; or maybe somebody who had been through it before, but with a similar personality maybe” (Subject A, interview, May 15, 2011). One widow said that it was very hard talking to others about her feelings when they had not experienced the same type of loss:
I really do not have one friend who’s lost their spouse. They have tried to meet my needs, and I feel like they have the best they can. But until you’ve walked in those persons shoes you don’t know. So, it’s not that people have not been there for me—they have. But until you can really cry with somebody ... you have got to talk to other people who have been through this, because that helps you. (Subject C, interview, October 21, 2011)
She now visits people who have lost a loved one and is able to say to them, “I really don’t know exactly how you feel, but I know somewhat, because I’ve been there.”
What Can the Church Do?
J. Moltmann (1990) states, “The care of the souls is a task of the entire community and happens in ‘mutual conversation and consolation among brethren” (Moltmann, J., 1990, p. 361). The church must recognize when people are grieving and be brave enough to reach out to them in compassion and love. “Hope itself is grounded in the experience of relationship” (Billman & Migliore, 1999, p. 101). Hughes (1985) states, “The church, the community of believers, has the potential to be a source of strength and support for mourners. It is in the church that Christ is experienced as present” (Hughes, 1985, p. 94).
The pastor’s initial role during the grieving process is “to be present and mostly silent. The most important element in guidance is ‘care-full-listening” (Patton, 2005, p. 59). The pastor also has the responsibility “to restore the person who may be separated from the faith community by her loss and grief, actually or symbolically, to that community” (Patton, 2005, p. 60). Pastors should begin to involve the church community by “claiming their own discomfort with the topic and then work through it using their sermons” (Jacobs, 2010, p. 93). She encourages clergy that by preaching about death and dying we normalize the topic and give our congregants the opportunity to work out their own spiritual issues.
Providing grief support can be a challenge if the pastor or lay minister is uncomfortable in those situations. One woman reported an awkward visit from her mother’s pastor when her mother was dying with cancer. She was going to give the pastor time alone with her mother, but he replied, “Oh, please don’t leave me with her.” When the woman told her mother the minister was there to see her, the mother responded, “Well, I’m glad he decided to show up. He didn’t even go over to so-in-so when she was sick” (Subject A, interview, May 15, 2011).
Grieving people need practical help, emotional support, and spiritual guidance during the grief process. “To accompany people who are dying or bereaved on that part of their life journey is to be given a great trust, a great privilege” (Wilcock,1996, p. 83). Little things like having someone prepared to meet them when coming back to church for the first time after the funeral. Be sensitive to the songs being sung, as they may have a sentimental meaning to the bereaved. Allow them the freedom to leave early. Talk about the deceased. Say their name. Don’t be afraid to cry out of your own grief. Offer to meet them later or call and check on them after their first time back at church or other social setting. Be available. (Harris, 2000, p. 39–40).
With every phone call and visit, with every prayer and every smile, with every casserole and pie, with every instance of reaching out, we share that hope today, and tomorrow, and always. (Harris, 2000, p. 39–40)
When death threatens who we are and what we are, community, must be re-created. Who will help in this effort? Distant relatives will be going home. The attention of friends and neighbors may wane if a bereaved person’s anger or depression persists.... The church, the community of believers, has the potential to be a source of strength and support for mourners.... While human families rise and pass away, the household of faith (in a sense) transcends time and passage, giving stability and purpose. (Hughes, 1985, pp. 41-42)
The presence of another person not only provides human companionship, but also represents the presence of God in the midst of suffering. The participant’s primary support came from people with whom they had long-standing relationships. The task of the pastor and church is to begin support before a death occurs. Build relationships now, so when tragedy strikes you are a welcome and comforting presence, and continue to be supportive for the ongoing work of grief.
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Cindy Wallace is an APC Board Certified Chaplain currently working at Alexian Brothers Hospice in Hanover Park, IL. This article is the result of research conducted as part of the Doctor of Ministry program for Columbia Theological Seminary in Decatur, GA. The completed doctoral project is entitled, Helping churches care: Expressing grief in Protestant evangelical churches.