My first experience with death came at age 8 at a funeral visitation for a prominent man from my church. Colorful, aromatic floral arrangements encircled the room. Well-dressed church folk stood in conversational clusters and hugged and greeted my family and I as we passed. This isn’t so bad. How come everybody makes such a fuss over this stuff? From my childish perspective, so far this didn’t feel a whole lot different than a wedding. I wondered where they were keeping the cake.
My family progressed to the front of the room where suddenly I realized the main attraction at this affair wasn’t a bride. I knew Mr. Jones had “gone home to the Lord,” but no one prepared me for the startling appearance of what was left of him here on earth. During a vacation earlier that summer, my family spent a rainy afternoon in a wax museum. So, after people die you make a wax figure of them maybe?
While I sorted the mystery in the casket, Mrs. Jones glided over to my family and said, ever so brightly, “Doesn’t he look just marvelous? Of course I know that’s not Howard anymore but didn’t they do a lovely job with his makeup. Doesn’t he look so natural?” Huh? My parents murmured quiet agreement and then attempted to express their sympathy but Mrs. Jones interrupted. “Oh don’t worry about me! I’m doing just wonderful! How can I be sad when Howard is with the Lord?” Double huh? Didn’t mom tell Aunt Phyllis, on the phone, it was awful for Mr. Jones to die so young?
If Mrs. Jones ever allowed herself to grieve properly, she certainly never showed it at church. Her unnatural, unrelenting happiness troubled my parents and others who feared, that at some point, she would break down, unable to live in denial of her loss any longer.
With adult perspective, I know Mrs. Jones probably sustained some soul damage by not allowing herself to feel the pain of loss. Sometimes, at funerals and visitations I bang into people who want to take the same approach as she did, either for themselves or others. They don’t allow a place for searing, raw grief and loss. Crying so hard your whole face and throat hurts is unthinkable. Wondering aloud about the future and immediate, pressing decisions shows a lack of faith in God.
Your position as a ministry leader will place you into funeral homes and houses of grief. After you’ve left will people feel better or worse? Will they feel their faith isn’t quite up to your standards or will they sense the peace and comfort that God would like to impart to them through you? That’s up to you. Here are my suggestions so that you can be helpful, not harmful.
Don’t say “I know how you feel.” Recently, a dear friend said good-bye to a beloved father-in-law. Mine went home to heaven three years ago. Over the years we talked many times about the similarities in the personalities of our father in laws and our relationships with them. The temptation to say “I know how it feels” might be there but the truth is I don’t. Each relationship in this life is unique from any other.
Affirm their feelings. I can say simple things like “It’s so painful to lose a parent ( sibling, spouse, friend, etc.) ,” if I have experienced a similar loss. Beyond shared experiences, you can simply allow grieving individuals to express honest feelings to you without you trying to “fix” them or cheerlead them with talk of “they are in a better place,” or such.
Share your presence with minimal words. My daughter’s first pregnancy ended in a horrific miscarriage. My husband and I sat with her and our son-in-law for several hours, just weeping together. We didn’t offer many comments, just cups of tea, Kleenex and hugs.
Offer specific acts of service. Please don’t say, “If you need anything, just call.” They won’t. Offer to help with babysitting, housework, driving people to and from airports, shoveling snow, raking leaves, caring for pets and other everyday tasks. Things like this pile up when people are weak from grief and overwhelmed with paperwork, funeral details and caring for their loved one’s possessions.
Although it’s last on this list, it’s honestly the best thing you can do for grieving people. Ken and I said good-bye to three parents in the last four years. Each time, I can sense when the prayers of our friends and church family kick in and kind of carry me along through each season of grief. Prayers call down the mercy and goodness of God into a heart broken by the wrenching away of a loved one.
Whenever you are called upon to minister to grieving people, ask the Holy Spirit to fill you with wisdom, knowledge, discernment and ALL of his fruit. Ask God to let you be a healing balm, not abrasive sandpaper.