People who are grieving the death of a loved one need enormous levels of support and encouragement. Since grieving people are often emotionally delicate, it’s important that your deacons and small-group leaders know how to care for them. A wrong word, an oversight, an unintentional offense can harm someone who is grieving and even prompt that person to leave your church.
Here are four tips to pass on to your leaders who are responsible to care for people grieving the death of a loved one:
- What comforts one person may not be comforting to someone else
When caring for a grieving person, your leaders want to help. However, they’re often unsure of what to do. Understandably, they think what was comforting or helpful to them would be helpful to everyone in grief. Or they think what they’ve said or done in the past to comfort a grieving person is sure to work again. Dr. Paul David Tripp, executive director of the Center for Pastoral Life and Care, explains why this isn’t the wisest way to figure out how to help grieving people.
Comfort is interesting because, like the experience of grief, the experience of comfort is not the same in everybody. Perhaps for one person, the feeling that comforts him most is to know that people are praying for him. Other grieving people don’t want to be left alone. There are people who want truths to hang on to, and those truths are like handholds for them to grab ahold of. And I remember a lady who told me that what comforted her was good, solid Christian music.1
Dr. Tripp suggests that care leaders ask the grieving person, “What are the things in the last couple of weeks that you found to be most comforting?” Then help the person identify those things that brought some comfort, even for a short moment, and thank God for providing that comfort. Base your care strategy on what the person shares.
When leaders understand that the experience of comfort is unique, it prevents them from annoying, and even further hurting, those they are caring for.
Often you’ll have deacons or small-group leaders who’ve never experienced a significant loss in the position of caring for someone who has. How do they sympathize with the person? One way is to help them understand that the person they are caring for has lost more than a friend, family member, or companion. They are also grieving losses such as:
- The person who paid the monthly bills
- The one who handled home repairs
- The person who cooked
- The family’s spiritual leader
- The financial provider
- An exercise partner
- A lover
- Dreams together for the future (retirement plans, plans to have children, plans for vacations, etc.)
By focusing on the specific losses that a person has experienced, your lay leader can be more sensitive to the magnitude of the loss that the person is dealing with. Your leaders will also be in a better position to recognize how pervasive the experience of grief is and why certain seemingly innocuous events or conversations can be so painful to a person who has lost a loved one.
The first year of grief is painful, but it’s often a blur. Many grieving people will tell you they can’t remember the first year of their grief. They’ll say that it was painful, but at the same time they were numb or were just “going through the motions.”
Then comes the second year. And while the grieving individuals thought the first year was bad, the second year is even more painful because they realize the loss is permanent. And they have to begin to build a new normal. Dr. Robert DeVries, professor emeritus of church education at Calvin Theological Seminary and coauthor of From We to Me and other books on grief, explains:
Any significant death experience, and working through that grief process, will create what we call a “new normal” for the person in grief. It’s going to be “normal” now. Somehow you have to redefine who you are relative to that vacancy: “How am I going to function? What am I going to do? How do I define my purposes and my goals in life now without that person?” That becomes the new normal.2
If your leaders are aware of this, they won’t think something is wrong when their friends continue to struggle with the death of a loved one—long after his death.
Many people assume that, if you just give it time, a person will heal from grief. But that’s not the case. People heal best from grief when they are intentional about acknowledging, facing, and dealing with their pain, while leaning upon God, His Word, and His people to see themselves through. Psychologist Dr. Susan Zonnebelt-Smeenge, coauthor of From We to Me and other books on grief, says:
A lot of people think that dealing with loss is kind of a “sit it out and wait” and then eventually you’re going to feel better—that somehow God is going to work in you and you’re going to be done feeling so awful. God certainly does do phenomenal work in us, but I think He expects us to do our part as well and to work through it.3
If you break this grief work down into tasks, you might say that it’s important for grieving people to do the following in order to heal from grief:
- Accept and grieve their loss
- Turn to God
- Store memories
- Embrace a new identity
- Create a new normal
Doing the grief work will be tough, but your care leaders should help them to remember that it takes significant effort to heal from the pain of grief. Dr. Zonnebelt-Smeenge points out that:
They’ve got to do some of the tough stuff to get themselves through. This isn’t just sitting back and relying on this process to just whip past and all of a sudden they’re going to be done. They have to do the hard work. [It’s] like if they’d fractured a leg. You don’t just sit around. There are things he’d have to do to help himself heal. The same is true with a significant loss.4
How does knowing this help your deacons and lay leaders? It helps them understand some of the ways they can help beyond taking meals. For example, they’d know that:
- They shouldn’t feel uncomfortable when a grieving person weeps over a loved one’s death. It is good to grieve.
- It’s important for grieving people to interact with possessions and memorabilia that stir their memories. This helps the person become more aware of what he has lost so that he can grieve it and seek the Lord to discover how the God of all comfort will meet that need.
- Grieving people often lose their identity when their loved one dies. A mother who lost her only child wonders if she is a mother anymore. A man who lost his wife doesn’t know whether to check the “married” or “single” box on an insurance form. An adult child feels like an orphan after both parents have died. This awareness can lead to fruitful conversations between the care leader and the grieving person, as the grieving person is often unaware that he has lost a part of his identity (which is why he doesn’t understand why he is hurting so much).
- It will take time, trial, and error to decide what a person would like his “new normal” to look like. With this understanding, your leaders will be better positioned to patiently wait on a person to work through those issues rather than rushing him through them. Your leaders will also be more apt to allow for the person to change a bit—not holding him to the be the same person he was before his loved one died.
If you equip your leaders with these insights, they’ll be better prepared to care for those in your church and community who are grieving the death of a loved one.
- Church Initiative interview with Dr. Paul David Tripp, September 2005.
- Church Initiative interview with Dr. Robert DeVries, April 2013.
- Church Initiative interview with Dr. Susan Zonnebelt-Smeenge, May 2015.
- Susan Zonnebelt-Smeenge, April 2013.