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AUSTIN GRADUATE SCHOOL OF THEOLOGY

CHURCH MEMBERS’ RESPONSE TO GRIEF: A PRIMER ON ETHICAL

CONSIDERATIONS AND PRACTICAL GUIDE

CRISIS MINISTRY

VIRGIL FRY, D.Min.

BY

SERGIO N. LONGORIA

AUSTIN, TEXAS

APRIL 27, 2009


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CHURCH MEMBERS’ RESPONSE TO GRIEF: A PRIMER ON ETHICAL

CONSIDERATIONS AND PRACTICAL GUIDE

Introduction

Much has been written for pastors, people in ministry, laity and clergy in

general regarding how to respond to grieving people—in this essay, referring to

those who have experienced the loss of a loved one. There are also support

groups designed to help people deal with grief. These groups sometimes are

lead by clergy, lay people, and even exist outside the church. In this essay I

would like to focus on the “rest of us” who do not necessarily fit into any of

these categories. These would be ordinary church members, who may or may

not attend Sunday school, may or may not volunteer in church activities, may

or may not have experienced grief or have been close to someone grieving. It is

possible that this group of people is much like I used to be before I had to face

grief head on. That is, people who have not thought much about the issue of

grief and are certainly not equipped to deal with that issue in themselves or in

others. These people basically avoid dealing with the issue of grief as this can

make them uncomfortable or feel unfit to deal with it. As a result of this

condition many ordinary church members are ill prepared to provide comfort,

support, and to show Christian love to their own members (much less to the

community) in times of grief. Here I seek to provide an ethical foundation for

getting involved with grieving people and practical tools to familiarize ordinary

church members with some useful ideas to help one another in times of grief.
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It is not my intention to create a grief support group. Rather my intent is that

the material presented in this essay and other resources be used in a Sunday

school-type discipleship class. This could take the form of a one hour, four

session class offered at church to those interested in learning how to better

deal with grief in others and themselves. This is certainly not a substitute for

professional training, but it is hoped that by learning something about the

subject we should be less fearful to approach one of our own in grief and

perhaps motivate some of them to learn more in this area. In the appendix of

this essay I provide a suggested lesson plan outline for this class. Also, the

intent here is not to substitute for the pastoral and ministry care offered to the

bereaved by the church staff. Rather, this is material to use in acquainting

ordinary Christians with what they should say or do for one another when

going through a time of grief as a consequence of a death. But before we can

start speaking about how to help in times of grief, we must know what grief is

and what does it mean to grieve.

Grief

In order to be able to help people in grief it is also needful to understand

something about what grief is and how it manifests. This can help understand

better where the other person is physically and emotionally during this time.

Although it has been difficult to define grief in clear terms, a working definition

could be understood as that which is experienced when we loose something or

someone of tremendous value. For the purposes of this essay, grief is an


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intense form of sorrow that is related to the loss by death of one who is dearly

loved. It is the emotional and related reactions that occur at the time of and

following the loss by death of an important person in our lives.1 One key factor

in grief is that it is a natural response. There is nothing abnormal about

experiencing grief at a time of loss, and especially, at a time of great loss after

the death of a loved one.2 Dr. Elisabeth Kubler-Ross had identified several

stages of grief experienced by people who are dying. But most of these stages

can also be applied to the bereaved. These were denial, anger, bargaining,

depression, and acceptance. Stages such as bargaining may be passed by the

bereaved entirely.3 June Cerza Kolf in her very insightful practical book, How

Can I Help? has instead identified several symptoms of grief that can help us

understand better those who are grieving. These include, shock, sighing,

crying, anger, and depression. These stages can occur in any order and re-

occur later in the grieving and recovery process.4 It is also important to know

how long grief lasts. Although this varies with every person, it has typically

been understood to last two years on average. And it is also crucial to

understand that during this grieving period there will be peaks and valleys.5

1 Edgar N. Jackson, Understanding Grief (Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press,


1957), 16-17.
2 Doug Manning, Comforting Those Who Grieve (San Francisco: Harper &

Row Publishers, 1985), 11.


3 Frank Cherry and John W. James, The Grief Recovery Handbook (New

York: Harper & Row Publishers, 1988), 6.


4 June Cerza Kolf, How Can I Help? (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker

Books, 1989), 72.


5 Manning, 13.
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For example, there will be intense recurring of sorrow and grief feelings around

anniversaries, birthdays, and holidays. If we don’t understand these factors,

we may think that people are weak or are wallowing in self-pity.6 Common to

all these “stages” of grief is a sense of shock and denial, when the person

cannot believe that the loved one is gone. During the first hours, days and even

months after the death of a loved one, the bereaved will often experience

numbness, and inability to concentrate and remember things, crying, agitation,

act irrationally, and many other symptoms of emotional and physical distress.

It is important for the rest of us to recognize that these responses are natural

and normal and should not be encouraged to stop.7 The anger part is also a

common reaction and can be directed at many things including self, other

family members, the deceased, or at God in many cases. People will often ask

why God has allowed something to happen. This is especially true in cases of

unexpected or tragic deaths. What is God’s role in our grief? Does God even

understand grief? The Bible says that God was “grieved in his heart” (Genesis

6:6). The prophet Isaiah said of Jesus:

He was despised and rejected by men;


a man of sorrows, and acquainted with grief;
and as one from whom men hide their faces
he was despised, and we esteemed him not.
Surely he has borne our griefs
and carried our sorrows;
yet we esteemed him stricken,
smitten by God, and afflicted.
But he was wounded for our transgressions;

6Ibid.
7Wayne E. Oates, Grief, Transition, and Loss: A Pastor’s Practical Guide
(Minneapolis, MN: Augsburg Fortress Press, 1997),16.
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he was crushed for our iniquities;


upon him was the chastisement that brought us peace,
and with his stripes we are healed.
All we like sheep have gone astray;
we have turned every one to his own way;
and the LORD has laid on him
the iniquity of us all. (Isaiah 53:3-6)

Jesus was noticeably moved not just to compassion, but to grief at the sight of

Mary and Martha’s sorrow for Lazarus their brother. Jesus wept. (John 11:33-

35). I think is helpful to know both to the bereaved and to the one helping the

bereaved, that God understands our anger, our grief, and our disappointment,

as so much of it is found expressed by the people of God in the Bible.8

Why should we care that others grieve?

As true Christians, we see ourselves as following Christ, obeying those

precepts that he left behind. As followers of Christ, we often say that, “we love

Jesus.” But do we really love Christ? Jesus very clearly stated that those who

would love him would inevitably obey his commandments (John 14:15). In

Jesus we see God’s example of a man who sought to do the will of God. This

zeal for obedience to God led Jesus to perform “very concrete acts which

ministered to the physical, emotional, and spiritual needs of persons…”9 Many

of the commandments have to do with precisely this kind of response to other

people and suggest that when we do these things for others, we not only

8Philip Yancey, Disappointment With God (Grand Rapids, Michigan:


Zondervan, 1988), 89-92.
9 David K. Switzer, Pastoral Care Emergencies (Minneapolis, MN:

Augsburg Fortress Press, 2000), 7.


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perform a service to them but also to God (Matthew 25:36-40). In a section full

of injunctions, the apostle Paul says, "Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with

those who weep." (Romans 12:15). And in 2 Corinthians 13:11, Paul enjoins us

to “comfort one another.” James says that we are to visit, and take care of

widows, and orphans in their affliction (James 1:27). To visit people in their

affliction implies to care, to comfort and have compassion on them. Much of

what the whole Bible says is that as the people of God, we are to be of service

to afflicted people, do what God does and go to the afflicted, show mercy and

compassion and offer comfort. In other words, as Christians we are to visit our

neighbor, especially when our neighbor is afflicted, and be of help and comfort.

This caring is manifested in what we actively do for our neighbor, and not just

on how we feel about their loss.10 The Lord also says in Isaiah, “Comfort,

comfort my people, says your God.” (Isaiah 40:1). The word comfort is made up

of two Latin words, com and fortis meaning, “strengthened by being with.”11 In

the story of the good Samaritan, Jesus gives a vivid example of what it is to

care and have compassion for someone.

"A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, and he fell among
robbers, who stripped him and beat him and departed, leaving him half
dead. Now by chance a priest was going down that road, and when he
saw him he passed by on the other side. So likewise a Levite, when he
came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side. But a
Samaritan, as he journeyed, came to where he was, and when he saw
him, he had compassion. He went to him and bound up his wounds,
pouring on oil and wine. Then he set him on his own animal and brought
him to an inn and took care of him. And the next day he took out two
denarii and gave them to the innkeeper, saying, 'Take care of him, and
whatever more you spend, I will repay you when I come back.' Which of

10 Ibid., 9.
11 Cerza Kolf, 22.
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these three, do you think, proved to be a neighbor to the man who fell
among the robbers?" He said, "The one who showed him mercy." And
Jesus said to him, "You go, and do likewise." (Luke 10:30-37)

Jesus commands us to do like the Samaritan did, to take care of our neighbor.

And yet there is also an innate element of empathy. After all, we will all

experience grief at some point or another and we would like to count on others

for support. It seems clear that we are to be a people willing and able to

provide assistance to those who need it. But some may still ask whether a

grieving person is a person in need. That is, do we have an obligation to help

grieving people as we do someone who is hurting as in the case of the man that

was injured by the robbers in Jesus’ Good Samaritan story? I think is possible

to make the case that a grieving person is a person who is deeply hurting, both

physically and emotionally. Grieving is not just an emotional or psychological

state of pain, but one that also carries many physical manifestations of

discomfort. Some of these can include, queasiness in the stomach, a cottony

feeling of the mouth, loss of awareness, heart palpitations, loss of appetite,

confusion, anxiety, fear, etc.12 Many Christians understand this obligation and

may even be willing to help, but many do not know how. It is also hoped that

by knowing more on this subject of helping, we would be less fearful to

approach someone in grief.

12 C. Charles Bachmann, Ministering To The Grief Sufferer (Englewood


Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, Inc., 1964), 15-16.
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Comforting the Bereaved

At the wake and funeral of my sister, people come to us as we were

sitting on the front row of the church, to express their sympathy. What I

experienced there was sometimes encouraging and sometimes quite

frustrating. Some of the people, especially the Christians, had comments such

as, “God works all things for good”, others would say to me or to my parents,

“consider it all joy”, or “God knows what he’s doing”, “she is in a better place”,

etc. All these phrases seemed to me empty and devoid of any real sympathy to

the family during those moments of intense grief. Later my parents expressed

to me disgust at such comments; in fact, it made them angry. Yet other people

came to us in tears and hugs, saying things like, “she was such a good person”

or “I am really going to miss her”… others were speechless, it seemed that

such emotional expressions, without a “theological comment,” were the most

comforting. It seems that in times like this, hearing someone pretend that they

know what is going on is simply vacuous and not helpful. People no doubt

make those comments trying to help, but they end up doing the opposite. The

most problematic comments are the ones about God, because they usually

amount to bad theology and unexamined beliefs about God. According to

Hathaway & Lightner, the real goal of such remarks about God is often to get

the griever to stop expressing sorrow, to make it easier for everyone around by

suppressing the bereaved’s emotions.13 After my sister’s funeral and as I

Nancy Hathaway and Candy Lightner, Giving Sorrow Words (New York:
13

Warner Books, Inc., 1990), 42.


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returned to my church home, only a handful of people came to me to express

condolences. There were two phone calls on the answering machine, three

cards in the mail and no flowers. I wondered where all the people we knew at

church were during my grief. I am sure that church members feel for our

losses. But it is quite possible that the flood of feelings that the bereaved is

experiencing is more than they can bear.14 They don’t want to be around it.

They might fear that what happened to the grieving person might happen to

them. It is not the bereaved’s pain that they fear so much, but their own.15 As

a culture we are afraid of being around grieving people. Our civilization

promotes the idea of happiness and hides sorrow and pain. We live in a

culture that lives in denial of death and seeks at every turn to hide it.16 We are

surrounded by a culture that is even afraid to use the words, dead, death, died

or dying. Instead we say that loved ones “pass on” or “pass over”, “passed

away”, “sleeping forever”, or that someone “lost” their son or that someone was

“taken away” from them.17 The euphemisms for death and dying are many. A

patient is “terminal” rather than dying. Or a person has six months to live

rather than he will die in six months. But denying death and hiding from

those who grieve should not be the Christian way. As argued above, the

Christian, if he is to be called one, has an obligation to his neighbor. An

14 Ibid., 41.
15 Ibid.
16 Barbara K. Roberts, Death Without Denial Grief Without Apology

(Troutdale, Oregon: NewSage Press, 2002), 4.


17 Ibid., 5.
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obligation to care and be compassionate, to be with and comfort the brethren

in seasons of affliction. To do this in the area of grief, we must be better

educated in confronting death, what to do and what to say—or not to say—in

such cases.

As time goes by, support can fade away alarmingly fast for someone who

has lost a loved one. People expect bereaved individuals to “get on with it,” that

is, to get back to the normalcy of life. But one thing as the people of God that

we should begin to learn is to let people grieve at their own pace while at the

same time offer support and comfort even weeks or months after the death.

But how exactly should we do this?

It is important to realize what takes place in grieving. Through grief,

people express their feeling about their loss. Through grief people express their

protest at the loss as well as the desire that things would be different. And

through grief people express the effects experienced by the devastating loss.18

It is important to not take away grieving from people. At a funeral or memorial

service one should approach the grieving and shake their hand, hug, or cry

with them. This is determined by the degree of closeness to the bereaved

members of the deceased. All these responses to the bereaved are appropriate.

Say nothing. Or say, “I am truly sorry for you loss” or something like that. Do

not aim at “easing” the bereaved’s pain and grief. It is not possible to do so at

this time. Above all do not involve God at this point or get into theological

18H. Norman Wright, Recovering From The Losses Of Life (Grand Rapids,
Michigan: Baker Books, 1993), 41.
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speculation. There is hope in loss for the Christian, in the form of spiritual

growth.19 But this often cannot be expressed at a funeral service, weeks or

even months after a death. The bereaved must work out the experience of grief

and find healing not only for the body and emotions, but eventually in their

belief system as well. As we help alongside a bereaved person, in time, we can

then stir them back to experience God anew.

At church, when we learn that someone in our Sunday school class has

suffered a death in the family, we should reach out. Often the most supportive

people are those who have also suffered a major loss.20 But this need not be

the case nor should it limit our response commitment as Christians. People

who disappear from the scene don’t understand that they really don’t have to

do a lot to be supportive. Widower Byron Callas said, “The people who were the

most helpful after my wife died were the ones who just allowed me to have their

company when I needed it or wanted it; who didn’t expect me to be or do

anything for anybody; who didn’t say platitudes.”21 Often it is assumed that

family members will be there to give support, but most often than not family

members are all engaged in the grieving process. So initially, it is important to

make a quick call or make a brief visit to the person or persons in grief to

express condolences. As Christians we should remember the Bible’s injunction

to “mourn with those who mourn” (Romans 12:15). When visiting the

bereaved, days or weeks later, allow the bereaved to talk about their loss. Do

19 Ibid., 35.
20 Hathaway & Lightner, 43.
21 Ibid., 44.
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not change the subject because you don’t want the person to feel bad. The fact

is the person still feels pain and changing the subject is akin to not being

allowed to talk about their loss, which only makes matters worse.22 There may

be things that the Sunday school class could do for the bereaved. For example,

cleaning the yard, bringing a meal, taking trash out, running errands, caring

for children, making phone calls, etc. Listen to the needs of the bereaved and

ask how you can help. The following is a list of helpful do’s and don’ts adapted

from Hathaway and Lightner’s book, Giving Sorrows Words, when notified that

someone has died:23

- Do Acknowledge the death as soon as possible. As suggested above, call,


drop by or send condolences. It is not necessary to say much. Send flowers
or cards. In my opinion, donating money to a charitable cause is nice and
good, but probably does nothing for the mourner. Send flowers or a plant
and also donate to the charitable cause.

- Do Provide practical help. Offer to go to the dry cleaners or wash the car.
Bring food. Take the trash out, etc.

- Do Attend the funeral or memorial service if possible. Turn out is important


for grievers. It is important to know that others share in the grief and to
know that the deceased affected so many people.

- Do Spend time together. Take walks, share meals, help the mourner clean
out the garage, etc. It is not the activity per se, it is the presence what
matters. Others may prefer to be alone and that should be respected. We
are to be friends.

- Do continue to call weeks and months after the death. This is when many
people begin to disappear not to be heard of again. It is also when contact
is most appreciated. Be prepared to ask direct questions such as, Do you
want to talk?, Would you like to go for a ride? Would you like to see a
movie? Etc.

22 Ibid., 45.
23 Ibid., 48-53.
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- Do touch the mourner. Sometimes just a pat on the shoulder is all that’s
needed, holding a hand or a hug. This can be very comforting when done
appropriately in Christian love.

- Do let the griever speak. This is often easier to do in a passive role, that is,
listening. This may mean listening to lamentation, anguish, guilt and
sorrow. It may be the same story over and over. But it is helpful to the
griever and one may help by focusing in other areas of the same story by
asking questions.

- Do let it be known that you are available at anytime. Let mourners know
that you are available even at odd hours of the night. Some mourners
experience insomnia and in those dark hours they may need someone to
talk to.

- Do remember anniversaries. Call. Visit. Send flowers, candy, or a note.


Extend invitations to spend time with the mourner such as invitations to
lunch or dinner.

- Remember holidays and birthdays. People like to be remembered and like


to know that you remembered their loss.

- Don’t cross-examine mourners. Mourners do not always want to talk about


specifics of the death. Do not ask; respect their privacy.

- Don’t criticize mourner’s actions. For example, in some instances the


grieving person may choose to wear the clothing of the deceased. If these
things bring comfort, it is not unhealthy or morbid.24

- Don’t impose ideas about the duration of grief. Don’t say thoughtless
things such as, “don’t you think you should be over this by now?” Our
society expects quick fixes to just about everything, including mourning.

- Don’t utter clichés. Below is a table of meaningless clichés and more


positive statements to use if needed. Remember that the fewer the words,
the better.

List of meaningless Clichés and more meaningful positive statements to use.25

24 Cerza Kolf, 73.


25 Ibid., 30.
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Meaningless Clichés Positive Statement

Time will heal. You must feel as if this pain will never
end.
It’s a blessing. I’m sorry this had to happen.
God never gives us more than we can This must seem like more than you
handle. can handle.
You must be strong. Don’t feel you need to be strong for
me.
You’re holding up so well. It’s okay to cry.
This is God’s will. Some things just don’t make any
sense.
I know how you feel. I just don’t know what to say.
Let me know if I can do anything. I’ll call tomorrow to see how I can
help.

- Do not compare. Do not engage in competing for the worst story. Or do not
take away someone’s story by telling yours instead.

- Do not say that things could be worse. Do not say that the bereaved should
be grateful the death was swift or the person was old. Do not say that other
people have suffered worse. That may make the person saying that feel
better, but the mourner feels manipulated and unrecognized.

- Do not make comments to the effect that the deceased can be replaced.
Comments such as “you can have more children” or “you’ll marry again”,
cannot change the fact that the death of a singular, irreplaceable human
being has taken place.

- Do not say that you know how a bereaved person feels. Even if you have
experienced loss before, you may empathize with someone, but you can
never feel what they feel. If you had a similar loss, it’s okay to say, “I share
your pain”.

- Don’t disappear. Above all, do not ignore the pain of a bereaved person. If
you just can’t bear to be around a griever, it may be possible to send notes
or call. Let the bereaved know that you are still around.
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Conclusion

In the foregoing, I have tried to provide not only a theological and ethical

rationale for getting involved with bereaved people, but also give some practical

advice as to how to do this. Many of us either lack confidence in our abilities

to deal with a grieving person or are extremely uncomfortable around

mourners. In our selfish desire to not be uncomfortable, we choose sometimes

to not make an appearance. In our own circle of Christian acquaintances and

even outside our Christian circle, Jesus has called us to be of support and

comfort to the afflicted. Perhaps the task is unbearable to some, but to others,

it is hoped that a little information on the subject and some practical advice

can go a long way to at least be able to make our presence known to a bereaved

person and be of some comfort. Knowing that we are there as we represent

God’s love is more than appropriate in any grief situation. What a privilege it is

to help someone in one of life’s most difficult circumstances as we represent

God’s love to a griever.


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APPENDIX

Suggested four session lesson plan outline on the

Christian response to the griever.

1st Session

- Purpose of sessions: (short description of purpose and content).

- Getting acquainted.

- What is grief: Ask group for definitions. Give a definition.

2nd Session

- Understanding grief: The Stages of Grief

- Why should we care?

3rd Session

- Sharing our experiences with bereaved people.

- Expressing Sympathy: Cards, calls, presence. What do you say in a card, or

phone call. What do you say in person.

- Do’s and Don’ts: What do you say or not to bereaved people and why.

4th Session

- Keeping in touch with the bereaved (don’t disappear).

- Practical ways for helping the bereaved.

- Summary and conclusion. Recommended reading.


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BIBLIOGRAPHY

Bachmann, C. Charles. Ministering To The Grief Sufferer. Englewood Cliffs,


N.J.: Prentice-Hall, Inc., 1964.

Cerza Kolf, June. How Can I Help? Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Books,
1989.

Cherry, Frank., and John W. James. The Grief Recovery Handbook. New York:
Harper & Row Publishers, 1988.

Hathaway, Nancy., and Candy Lightner. Giving Sorrow Words. New York:
Warner Books, Inc., 1990.

Jackson, Edgar N. Understanding Grief. Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 1957.

Manning, Doug. Comforting Those Who Grieve. San Francisco: Harper & Row
Publishers, 1985.

Oates, Wayne E. Grief, Transition, and Loss: A Pastor's Practical Guide.


Minneapolis, MN: Augsburg Fortress Press, 1997.

Roberts, Barbara K. Death Without Denial Grief Without Apology. Troutdale,


Oregon: NewSage Press, 2002.

Switzer, David K. Pastoral Care Emergencies. Minneapolis, MN: Augsburg


Fortress Press, 2000.

Wright, H. Norman. Recovering From The Losses Of Life. Grand Rapids,


Michigan: Baker Books, 1993.

Yancey, Philip. Disappointment With God. Grand Rapids, Michigan:


Zondervan, 1988.

All Biblical references are taken from the English Standard Version (ESV) Bible.