Dos and Don’ts of Grief Ministry
One of the most miraculous things about Jesus is that he knows our human condition. Even though he is true God, he knows the pain and sorrow that come with earthly life. In John 11 we hear the story of Lazarus’s death. Lazarus was a friend that Jesus dearly loved, and Jesus wept as he made his way to Lazarus’s tomb. Even though Jesus would raise Lazarus from the dead, he cried human tears of grief and anger.
The grief of death will certainly weigh on each one of us at some point in life. As a church leader, it is part of your calling to minister to individuals when they are in the midst of illness, death, and sorrow. As Romans 12:15 (ESV) tells us, “weep with those who weep.”
We all know that it can be difficult to provide support to individuals experiencing the effects of death. Their entire world has just fallen apart, and no matter how hard you try, you can’t fix it. However, you can bring them words of comfort from Jesus. Our Savior has walked in our shoes. He knows our pain and our sadness. The promises of his presence and eternal life can break through even the darkest veil of grief.
Don’t do it alone
No one person can manage a grief ministry program alone. Bring together your pastors, care ministry leaders, lay leaders, and volunteers to create a grief ministry team. Even if you have a small church, you still need at least two people to cover this responsibility. Create redundancy to effectively bring the comforting words of Jesus to individuals who are grieving.
As you create a grief ministry team, appoint a leader. This will probably be the person who is the most experienced. This person will take up the task of educating the team and recruiting new members, as needed.
Don’t simplify grief
To the person experiencing loss, death is complicated. There may be feelings of relief if death comes after a long illness. There may be feelings of resentment when an estranged parent dies. There may be feelings of blame or anger in any case.
In the short term, the logistics can be overwhelming. A grief ministry team can help the mourner sort out the details, but don’t assume anything. A simple question like the place of burial or readings for the funeral service may have extremely important significance. Have a conversation and offer basic services—printing funeral bulletins, ordering flowers, setting up a memorial webpage, organizing meals from volunteers, or communicating prayer requests with church members.
In the long term, death rocks every part of the mourner's life - physical, emotional, psychological, behavioral, and spiritual. Adjusting to life without a loved one is complicated. Who will pay the bills? Who will take out the trash? Who will cook? Am I still a husband or wife? a mother or father? Acknowledge the validity of these questions, but use a Bible verse like 1 Peter 2:9 or Jeremiah 29:11 to remind those who grieve that they can still find hope in God’s plan.
Do realize that the second year is the hardest
It may seem counterintuitive, but the second year of grief is the most difficult for many people. As one expert puts it, “The first year is a time of learning to adjust and physically survive. . . . The emotional impact of the loss may dominate the subsequent year. . . . The meaning and significance of the loss emerges more clearly. The press of business has subsided and the bereaved person is left with the ‘now what do I do with the rest of my life’ questions and fears.”
How can a grief team help? Write down the date of the death and mark the day three months, six months, and one year later. Mark the birthday of the person who died and, for couples, the wedding anniversary. On each of these occasions, a member of the grief ministry team should send a card, make a phone call, or personally visit the family. Keep talking about the person who died and encourage the mourners to recall memories even years after the funeral. Let the grieving family know that you haven’t forgotten the loss or the life of the individual who is gone.
Do make a point to provide ongoing care
During the first month after death, there’s usually a large outpouring of support. After that, many people seem to forget it even happened. But for the mourner, it’s a daily struggle to keep up with work, responsibilities at home, and self-care. This is where the “doers” (those who may not be so good at providing words of comfort) of the grief ministry team can make their impact.
Your team can provide ongoing care by
- helping clean out the room or house of the one who has passed away;
- helping take care of the pets or children of the family;
- cleaning the house and keeping up with maintenance;
- bringing meals at least once each week;
- helping sort out bills, insurance claims, or final expenses; and
- providing rides to church.
Your church can also help care for the person’s emotional needs by hosting a grief support group. Look for programs with local options like GriefShare or Stephen Ministries.
As you implement a grief ministry team at your church, the most important “do” is to reaffirm the hope we have though faith in our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. No matter the depth of grief, the power of our Savior’s love will triumph. “Thanks be to God, who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ” (1 Corinthians 15:57 ESV).
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