Don't Take My Grief Away: Grief and the Role of Pastoral Care
The words of 1 Thessalonians 4:13 are often read and expounded upon in times of bereavement:
Brothers, we do not want you to be ignorant of those who fall asleep, or to grieve like the rest of men, who have no hope.
These words of encouragement and instruction to the bereaved Christian, intended to ease the pain of separation from a loved one, are often a source of frustration and even an impediment to the grieving believer in Jesus Christ. It is not that there is anything wrong with the apostle Paul's message here, but rather, sometimes a well-intentioned poor application. Often, there is a sense that the implication of this text is that grief does not really exist for the Christian, or perhaps that most of its bite has been removed. Some understand grief as synonymous with despair, and work hard to steer their brother or sister away from grief towards a more appropriate "faith" response to bereavement; where the hope and confidence in the expectation of the return of our Lord and Saviour covers or alleviates one's grief.
Let me not be misunderstood. There is hope for the bereaved in our Lord. Scripture is abundantly clear on that point. Yet there is also grief in the life of the Christian. This is what Paul alludes to in 1 Thessalonians — there is grief for the bereaved Christian, yet it is unique in that it is enveloped in hope; unlike those who without Jesus Christ encounter a grief with no hope (or false hope). This is the topic I would like to address with you. I will attempt to give some definition and description of "grief with hope" so that there may be increased understanding about the physical, emotional, social, and spiritual journey that the bereaved Christian is faced with. Once we have established that groundwork, I want to share some thoughts on the role we can play, as officebearers, in assisting the grieving. This will undoubtedly lead to a practical discussion. I have entitled this address, "Don't Take My Grief Away" — Grief and the Role of the Pastoral Caregiver.
I began with the comment that, in the Christian context, there is often a built in resistance to grief. Grief seems to bear the stigma of something that is contrary to faith. Grief is seen as a worldly response to bereavement and to be at odds with the gospel of hope. It is important that we first break down this construct.
Let us begin with defining grief. Grief is the anguish, sorrow, or pain that is experienced both mentally and physically when we are separated from someone or something we hold dear or even love. Grief may be experienced over a temporary or permanent separation. Grief is our response to the hurt of separation. We may grieve over the loss of a job or our business. We may grieve when a dear friend moves away. We may even grieve when a treasured item is lost or broken. We definitely grieve when a loved one dies. We all know something of that feeling. It may start deep down in our belly, it may catch in the back of our throat, it often constricts our chest or causes our head to ache. It may prompt us to become openly emotional, either angry or sad, or feeling empty and detached. A strict definition of grief is elusive because it is unique, influenced both by our personalities and our individual circumstances. Nevertheless it is brought on by separation, by interrupted love, and it seems to have a course of its own to run.
Grief is our human response to loss. I would even suggest it is part of our being image bearers of our Father in heaven. We read in scripture how the Lord God the Creator was moved to a holy grief and sorrow over the broken relationship with his people and that his heart was filled with pain. God grieved over the loss of communion with man whom he had created to love and serve Him. This grief prompted God to destroy the world with a flood and save Noah and his family because they remained in covenant relationship with Him (Genesis 6). We also see that our Lord Jesus Christ experienced grief in his lifetime. We read in Matthew 14 that after our Lord heard of the death of John the Baptist he withdrew to be alone in a solitary place. It was only the persistence of the crowd that followed him that cut this expression of grief short. We are all familiar with the stirring passage where Jesus wept at the grave of his friend Lazarus. I have often wondered at this passage. How could our Lord, who certainly had a good perspective and understanding of his purpose and mission on earth, be so moved to weep along with the people? If grief is not compatible with faith, would this suggest that the Lord was uncertain here, or lost focus or lacked faith? We know that this would be a ridiculous and impossible conclusion. It seems to illustrate Jesus' true humanity, that he felt the pain of separation from those he loved; yet in light of God's grief revealed in Genesis 6 maybe it also speaks dramatically about His divine nature as well. (I'll leave that to the qualified exegetes!) I think it is safe to say that it was part of His suffering. We also see something of this grief in the suffering of our Lord in the garden of Gethsemane. One might call this anticipatory grief as He faced the reality of being forsaken and separated from His Father in His impending death and burial. Jesus knew of a grief far more intense than any of us will ever bear. And He wept about it. Here we see that grief and trust in the Father are not running cross current. Jesus works out this grief in His tears and prayers.
And then there are numerous examples of grief and its expression in the lives of believers in the Old Testament. We can think of Joseph mourning over his father Jacob and the elaborate ceremonial funeral procession that ensued; of David lamenting over the death of Saul, the anointed of the Lord, or over the death of his first child with Bathsheba; of Job sitting in sackcloth and ashes grieving over the death of his children while his friends gather to comfort and counsel him. There is a long tradition of Jewish mourning practices born out of the actions of the Jewish forefathers. It is not my intention to convince you that we should adopt the Jewish practices, but rather to prove that there is a place for grieving in the life of the people of God. Perhaps even more emphatically, grief is an important element in the growth and maturation of the child of God.
I mentioned in the introduction that the bereaved are on a grief journey. Grief has often been described this way because it follows a definite course. It has a defined beginning and leads into new territory for the bereaved. Some have described the route as circuitous, starting and ending back at the same spot. I contend that this is a poor model. A significant loss in life requires the eventual acceptance that we do not end up in the same place, that we cannot recreate the past, that we must allow ourselves to enter a new reality. However, we must recognize cyclical patterns within grief as the bereaved person reviews and reworks all the many feelings encountered at this time. Let me illustrate by trying to give an overview of the grief journey (sometimes called grief work). This is not meant to be prescriptive, but rather based on other's research in compiling the descriptions of many peoples' experiences.
We have to clearly understand that bereaved people are reluctant travelers on the grief journey. They did not ask for the affliction that causes their grief. They are generally unwilling or unable to initially accept it, let alone willing to embrace it. As a result the initial steps on this road are steps of resistance, embodied by shock, numbness, denial, anger, frustration, and inability to focus. (I can't believe it! It doesn't seem real! It can't be, I just saw him yesterday.) There is an intensive period involving a continual revisiting and questioning the reality of the events surrounding the death, including feelings of guilt and a sense of responsibility about actions at the time of death or prior to it. (If only I had been there, If only I insisted we go to the doctors earlier, If only we had just stayed home, If only...) These do not happen in a set or ordered pattern, nor is this an exhaustive list. But it is clear that the beginning of this journey has much to do with accepting the fact of the loss. Until someone reaches the point where they have accepted that their loved one is gone, it is impossible to move on to a response to this loss. I use the term "gone" in the strict physical and temporal sense. Scripture also speaks of the dead as those who are "sleeping". This is a helpful term in that it illustrates to us that the death is not final and there is the full expectation of the awakening of the dead in Jesus Christ. Yet the term is not helpful if it prevents the bereaved from facing the reality that in this life, their loved one is now dead to them. This is crucial to a healthy Christian grief response. The secular response over the ages is that the soul is immortal and remains embodied in nature, in our memories, or in our hearts and somehow remains available to us. This is not the Christian teaching. Those who die in the Lord are with the Lord. They are no longer with us. This is not an easy reality to accept or grasp. It works itself out over the journey. We cannot rush someone into this acceptance, any more than we can steer them around it. It is the first difficult step. We cannot put a rigid timeline on this grief journey.
Once the difficult reality is experienced and accepted, now comes the reaction. Again the response is varied and random but can generally be described using some of the following terms. Disorganization encapsulates this period in many ways. The bereaved have had their lives turned upside down. To be concrete, I will speak about the sudden loss of a husband or wife. What was a normal and safe routine of living for many years suddenly becomes threatening and uninviting. Every action and event seems to accentuate the absence of the spouse instead of providing relief or respite for an aching heart. Quite often the bereaved cannot find refuge in their own home. There is a general scrambling around to find something that brings the safety and security that was once afforded in the relationship with the spouse. It is elusive because it is gone. I submit, again that I cannot be exhaustive in this description. So many factors affect the response. The gender of the person, the type and depth of the relationship, the time for preparation for the death, the nature of the death, and many other factors have an influence. Suffice it to say that there is a realization that there is a big change in one's life, which is an unwelcome one. The bereaved begin to search for ways to cope with this change. Often this leads to over-activity when they are already physically weakened by the experience. This may stimulate feelings of anxiety, panic, and fear. This all happens within the context of being a child of God. I am not suggesting that this grief journey assaults one's belief in God, although it may. It is clear that the child of God may feel all of these emotions even while feeling secure in God's care.
The next steps on the road are very difficult for the grieving and also taxing for the supporting community (family, friends, pastor, etc.). Quite often there is an extended feeling of "spinning one's wheels". Lack of motivation, depression, sadness, emptiness, and a general unwillingness and inability to move forward, all form a response to the very real understanding that life has changed irreversibly for the bereaved. This is a time that tries the patience of those who are supportive, for quite often their lives do forge on without as large an impact on their daily routine. They want to be supportive, but tire of the journey. This is where many well meaning people try to divert the bereaved's attention from grief work, and try to offer shortcuts to bypass the grief response. They just want to help the bereaved to move on. Frustration sets in when the efforts seem to have little effect and don't seem to bear positive results. It is common that the bereaved march to a slower beat than those around them. This needs to be accepted. This is a time of introspection and rediscovery for the bereaved. I would suggest this is a significant period of personal growth, also in the spiritual context, for a grieving Christian. In 2 Corinthians 5 we read about groaning and being burdened in our earthly tent. Often the bereaved are very much in tune with this reality in their grief. It is not uncommon for them to experience feelings of wishing to join their loved ones, and having a sense of purposelessness in normal daily activities. This is not the same as being suicidal. It is simply a feeling of no longer knowing their role and calling in life. This also needs to be rediscovered. A new social context needs to develop, also amongst the communion of saints and within their family structure.
There does come a time, for those who allow themselves to walk the grief journey, where they begin to turn from disorganization to reorganization. This is sometimes called a period of reconciliation. In short, the bereaved are very aware of the impact of the loss of their loved one in their life, are able to acknowledge and express this, and are also able to begin to make plans for a new reality. This is not a time where pain and grief are left behind, but where it is openly acknowledged and accepted as part of living. The bereaved do not get over their grief but are reconciled to the fact that it is part of their life. It is also described as a movement from a "head" acceptance and understanding of the death and its impact to a "heart" understanding. This is usually time of acute mourning, as the numbness has worn off and the stark reality has set in. Over time the intensity of the pain is dulled and less frequent. There is hope for the future and a reemerging sense of purpose for one's own life and the possibility of commitment to future plans and goals returns. The bereaved arrive at a new place that is very much shaped by their grief experience.
As mentioned earlier, this journey to a healthy resolution of grief is not circuitous. The bereaved do not return to a former reality, but emerge to a new reality, quite often with a new sense of identity. It is unreasonable to expect that one who has been in a marriage relationship (where two have become one) would not have to do some unraveling after the death of their spouse in order to continue on. In marriage you focus on each other's well being. When one spouse dies, the focus needs to shift. This takes time and energy. This takes grief work. This also applies in varied ways with the death of a child, a parent, or sibling. The relationship of the bereaved to the deceased influences the reorganization of one's life that needs to take place. Again this is an area where the supporting community is not always helpful. Often there is a resistance to changes in the bereaved's personality or life patterns. Others also wish to recoup the past as well. They want life to go back to normal as it was before the death. This can lead to internal conflict in families and amongst friends when the need for change is not clearly understood.
This has been a thumbnail sketch of the grief process. There are undoubtedly more questions that could be asked and answered. I hope I have convinced you that grief is an important and natural part of the life of a Christian. It is part of a healthy spiritual life, as well, and can serve to strengthen one's faith in the Lord. In fact, the opposite is also true; a refusal to grieve the loss of a loved one may leave one desperate and confused and in spiritual jeopardy. This is where the role of the pastoral caregiver is a crucial one.
The Bible is filled with examples of the care of our heavenly Father for the widow and the orphan. There is a strong sense that our Father in heaven is well in tune with the plight of the bereaved. I need not cite all kinds of examples for you. I would like to look at the 23 Psalm as typifying the pastoral role in caring for the grieving. The words are very familiar to all of us:
He guides me in paths of righteousness for his name's sake. Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for you are with me; your rod and your staff they comfort me.
Certainly these are words of consolation for the dying, as well as for the loved ones left behind. The grieving will relate to the feeling of walking in the shadow of death, where every action, decision, and thought seems to be overshadowed by the reality of the loss of their loved one. The comfort afforded in this passage is that they are not alone. The shepherd is with them and he has the tools to protect and comfort. Yet, he does not steer them off the path, or introduce a new way. He does not suggest that a different road be taken so that one can flee from the shadow of death. He accompanies on the journey, and uses his resources to comfort and allow for safe passage. This then is the role of the pastoral care giver.
Practically speaking, what does this mean? How can the pastoral office bearer fulfill this calling? At the foundation for helping the bereaved is the need for a personal comfort level and acceptance of the grieving process. If the office bearer is a reluctant traveler on the grief journey, he may prove to be of little assistance to the grieving. If your goal is to take the grief away, you will do everything possible to find the shortcuts, to sidetrack, to sit and rest rather than travel the hard journey. (This is manifested by explaining away the need for grief because of our sure comfort and heavenly perspective, by avoiding the topic altogether, by doing all the talking and controlling the direction of the discussion, by cutting off, interjecting, showing uncomfortable body language in the face of tears, etc.) This must be your initial consideration. Am I prepared to make this journey? If not, I suggest you would be of better help to defer to another, rather than assert your own way. You cannot help the grieving, even when you come with the Gospel of salvation in hand, if you are unable to allow for and accept the expression of grief. God listens to and accepts our grief, his shepherds must be willing as well.
If we are willing, that is a start. We will still need the tools and resources. What exactly is the rod and staff that will comfort the weary traveler and maintain a safe way and how do we use them. We all know the clear expression of the source of our comfort as summarized in the Heidelberg Catechism, Lord's Day 1, but we also need to know how to administer that comfort effectively to the bereaved. I suggest to you that when we accompany someone on the grief journey we need to adapt to the terrain. We need to be willing to respond to a different set of needs as time moves on. I spoke earlier of the initial grief responses including shock, denial, numbness, and disbelief. At this early stage of grief it is important to be aware that our words are our least effective tool. This is because the hearing of our listeners is not good. The shock accompanying the finality of the death of a loved one, even when it is expected, reduces ones ability to absorb and digest what one is told. This is not the time for an eloquent explanation of God's eternal plan for His people. Yet this is the time for action for the pastoral caregiver. This is a time to "be with" the bereaved. This is a time when our accessibility and presence is important; where simple words of support, love and prayer are offered. A calm, caring, and supportive presence is what we can provide at this time. We need to be aware of the inadequacy of our words and we need to be willing to accept that.
We also need to be aware of our limits at this point. We are not expected to take the place of the family members, by fulfilling their roles as well. Physical expressions of comfort (hugging, etc.) may be appropriate in some instances, but this is not our primary function. In addition, we must be careful to allow time for decision making and not to dominate. This initial period is often confusing for the bereaved. We need to be careful not to impose all our own thoughts and ideas of what would be best for them. It has been suggested that "mouths closed, ears open, presence available" is the most effective help that can be offered at this early stage. It is also during these days where the minister may work closely with the family in planning a fitting and helpful funeral service. There is also an opportunity for the pastor and elder to participate in the visitation period by offering and providing simple words of scriptural comfort and prayers for the family. This is the time when the deacon also can offer words of encouragement and extend the offer of assistance to the family wherever it may be needed. Again, the fact that you are available to the bereaved probably has more supportive impact than any words you can say.
After the funeral can be a complicated period for the bereaved and often a frustrating time for the caregiver. This is the time characterized by feelings of disorganization, confusion, searching and yearning for something lost. One widow describes it this way, "I felt as if I was a lonely traveler with no companion, and worse yet, no destination. It was as if I couldn't find myself or anybody else." This is often a period when the bereaved feel as if they are going crazy. Disorganized thoughts and a restlessness never before experienced is normal. Visual hallucinations in the form of memory pictures of the deceased are very common. The bereaved often feel as if they can see their loved one in places they would normally expect to see them. Difficulties with eating and sleeping can accompany this, as well as recurrent dreams. This is a time when regular visitation is important. This takes patience, because you will need to listen to stories and feelings repeated over and over again. This is helpful for the bereaved as they begin to come to terms with the reality of the death. Good listening skills are important, as the mourner will sense if you are interested or not. It is through the expression of these thoughts and feelings, at times confused and emotional, that the mourner will develop clarity of mind. Again, the role of the pastoral caregiver is attentiveness, presence, and simple guidance. The bereaved should also be discouraged from making any rash or dramatic decisions at this time. It is a time for reflection, not change.
Occasionally, the caregiver may become the object of frustration or anger for the bereaved. Your help and attention may be rebuffed because along with it comes the experience of the pain of the loss that has occurred. This is a warning sign that we may be too willing to usher the bereaved along on their journey, while they are resistant and clinging to the past. This is not wrong. It just is. This is not a time to take sides with or against the mourner, rather it is a time to understand their feelings and comfort them. This does not mean that you are encouraging them to cling to the past, but that you are acknowledging their present need to do that. This is a key point in being helpful in a pastoral sense. Your role during the grieving process is not one of reproof or correction of the person's frustrations or feelings. Rather, it is one of understanding and listening to difficult feelings, even spiritual struggles, accepting them as genuine and offering comfort and hope for the future. The caregiver's role is not to work out or explain away the feelings of the bereaved. Instead it is to be attentive and supportive. We must remember that the bereaved are always facing the pressure of the society around them to get on with their life, to move away from their grief. The pastoral caregiver should be a grief facilitator, encouraging the expression and discussion of the feelings associated with grief. The fact that the loss is not talked about or mentioned, or that the bereaved never raised the subject at all, does not constitute a healthy or helpful visit. Our duty is to provide a safe and comfortable environment to walk through the shadow of death. Our ability to convey a level of comfort in the presence of the expression of grief will help in this regard. We need to prepare ourselves for that task and be willing to address it by opening a way.
The ultimate goal in the grief journey is reconciliation or reorganization. The task of the caregiver is to expect that this will take place and hold out this hope for the bereaved. This includes an acknowledgment and acceptance of the difficult road to get there. But it also allows hope for a better day, and encouragement that the grief journey does lead somewhere; not to a recapturing of the past, but to a new future beyond the pain of the grief presently experienced. The pastoral caregiver must convey an awareness and acceptance of the normalcy of grief and also the expectation and hope that healing is possible. We must understand that this is an emotional, physical, and spiritual journey. The shepherd is equipped with rod and staff to comfort on the journey.
What are the rod and staff that we are equipped with? Without the gospel message there is no real hope for anyone. Yet used ineffectively the word may not be helpful for the mourner. So I must conclude that the rod and staff are the gospel message combined with the communication skills we have been blessed with that enable us to be effective office bearers; persistent visitation, attentive listening skills, careful and simple expression of God's love, sound guidance, willingness not to have "quick fix" solutions, patience, perseverance. In summary, a truly effective pastoral caregiver needs to understand and accept the grief process and work within its confines. A healthy attitude towards grief and its healing pathway is instrumental for being helpful. In this way the child of God may be assisted in making the grief journey and also realize the fullness of the pastoral promises of Psalm 23 ... dwelling in the house of the Lord forever!