What Pastors Need to Know About Grief
In March of 2004 my wife of 27 years and 18-year-old daughter were killed in a car wreck on the Indian Nations Turnpike in Oklahoma. By that time in my ministry as a pastor I had done dozens of funerals. But I had no idea about the depth of pain and expansive ramifications that a significant loss can inflict.
Grief comes to us when someone or something significant dies. Our culture recognizes the death of a person as a cause of grief. You have seen the vacant stare on the face of a dear woman whose husband of 55 years has died. She is likely experiencing indescribable pain. Her world has radically changed. The pillar upon which she leaned for so many decades is no longer there. What do you need to know, as her pastor, about what’s going on in her post-husband world.
There are other sources of debilitating grief, too; the death of a job, pet, relationship, status, income, health, certain freedoms, and on and on. It is a strong likelihood that at least a few people in the congregation you serve are experiencing pain with these sources of grief every week. Is there a word of comfort you can speak to them?
Here are two things you need to know about grief:
First, it is necessary to face the pain of grief in order to find healing. Jesus grieved deeply. Revisit John 11:17ff for the account of Lazarus’ death. When the apostle said, “Jesus wept,” he did not mean that Jesus shed a few tears and stoically moved on. In the context of the first century middle eastern culture combined with his deep love for Lazarus, Jesus fell on the ground, writhing in pain, deeply weeping and moaning. Read vss. 33-36. Deep, uncontrollable weeping is necessary in the healing of significant loss.
Second, a significant death plagues you with ever-present sadness, numbness and disorientation for a while. That’s the empty stare in the widow’s eyes, on the face of the unemployed father. No amount of happy talk and cheerleading you do toward them is going to make a meaningful difference. Don’t try to take the gift of grief away from them.
Here are some statements you should never say to a grieving person:
- She’s gone to a better place. For a Christian, this is true. But for the person grieving there is no better place for their loved one to be than back with them!
- It just was his time to go. This shows no compassion and can deepen the anger the grieving person may already have.
- You have to be strong for …… They don’t! Restricting the way a person grieves is cruel. Acknowledge their pain and stand with them.
- God never gives us more than we can bare. This biblical thought has nothing to do with grief. It has to do with escaping temptation.
So, what can you do to help a person in grief? Here are 5 suggestions:
- Listen to their pain without judgement or interruptions.
- Here are some statements you can make:
- I’m sorry you’re facing this loss. It must be very painful.
- I wish I had the right words to say, just know I care about you.
- My favorite thing about _______ is ……
- How about a hug? Always ask. Some do, some don’t.
- Can I pray with you? You’re going to pray for them. But there is nothing like praying with them.
- I’m going to the store. What are a few things I can pick up for you?
- Saying, “I’m here for you to do anything” is too vague.
- Is there anyone in the family who might need to talk to a counselor?
- Keep in touch beyond the typical 3-week time frame. Everyone has gotten back to their normal lives. Not them.
- Assign a deacon or Sunday School classmate to help them during the adjustment stage of their grief. They are most likely facing new tasks and responsibilities they have not had to face before.
- Encourage them not to isolate. Painful emotions and thoughts become larger than life when we are alone for a long period of time.
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David Willets is a retired Oklahoma Baptist pastor and can be reached at email@example.com.