Grief is Ministry

Posted on May 9th, 2012

When my husband, Leighton Farrell, was in ministry, I saw first-hand the power of spiritual leadership when he visited those who were sick and dying and later comforted those who grieved at memorial and funeral services. At the time, the need for comfort and pastoral care for those who were grieving—although obvious and very real—was somewhat spiritually abstract. You see, until my husband died in 2004, I had never experienced the death of someone intimately close to my heart. The truth is, it is absolutely impossible to comprehend the death of another person before the fact, however dire the circumstance. As Leighton lay dying, I kept hoping—irrationally and entirely in vain—that the nightmare of his illness might still end in earthly victory. I had no concept of what death would be like when it came, or how it would feel to experience the last breath of another beloved human being in a single moment of utter finality. When he died, I felt there was no one and nothing that could ever comfort my broken heart. I knew that if I was ever to be comforted and survive my life-altering encounter with grief, I must understand the why of this profound loss to my life.

Because much of the work of grief is soul-searching and introspective, I looked inside my own broken heart to seek and find answers within the pain and sorrow of grief. What I saw reflected there was the steadfast love and faithfulness of God working to comfort me through the power of the Holy Spirit. Over time I realized that the death of a husband or wife is unlike any other experience of loss because spousal love is a sacred gift ordained by God. In response to my experience of profound grief, I wrote Inside the Broken Heart from the spiritual perspective reserved specifically for widows and widowers to tenderly guide those who grieve the death of a spouse back to fullness of life.

The Bible speaks repeatedly about comfort. Consider, for example, these verses from 2 Corinthians: "Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of compassion and the God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our troubles, so that we can comfort those in any trouble with the comfort we ourselves have received from God" (2 Corinthians 1:3-4 NIV). It is a mandate of our faith to comfort those who grieve in every experience of loss. Through the ministry of pastoral care, the church expresses comfort to those who grieve the death of a loved one at their time of greatest emotional need. When those who sorrow are comforted spiritually, the outreach of the church is never forgotten. Sadly, when the church falls short in this vital ministry, those who grieve are slow to forget. Grief is personal. Neglect hurts.

 One of the challenges of the church—whatever the size, wherever the location—is providing sustained pastoral care to those who grieve beyond the immediate moments of death and ritual. For many, grief does not become a reality until after the funeral or memorial service is over. Often it is only then that the loneliness of grief overwhelms those who have lost a loved one. There is an urgent need for a connection to others who understand the pain of grief.

The support of a group can be invaluable, especially when grief is new. Beyond the Broken Heart, a comprehensive grief ministry program, can benefit any church as a resource for offering structured, ongoing pastoral care to those who grieve. The purpose of the program is to provide ministry to those who are suffering because of the death of someone they love. When the church offers the opportunity for those who grieve to participate in a support group, it responds to the spiritual void in the secular world that denies the power and importance of grief.

What does a grief group look like? Often we have a preconceived notion that a grief group is usually for older ladies who gather to share dire stories and bemoan their losses. I once attended a group like this and vowed never again to participate. Interestingly, the average age of a widow in America is younger than one might think. Influenced by the circumstances and tragedies of contemporary life, the idea of what a grief group looks like and the needs of those who attend have changed over time. There is emotional urgency in the deep desire for spiritual comfort and pastoral care expressed by those who participate in a grief group. 

The first group I led was for those who had lost a spouse to death. Because I had no experience leading a group, for me the only prerequisite was that the meetings must offer spiritual, emotional, and practical support for both men and women based on the foundations of faith and scripture. Beyond that, I knew that God would guide the way.

Each person who came was suffering from a broken heart. We had something very powerful in common. A core group of about twelve men and women showed up faithfully for our bi-monthly sessions. Other participants came and went as our group continued to meet for over two years. It was especially interesting that the group consisted of as many men as there were women, ranging in age from thirty to eighty.

The overwhelming neediness of the men was compelling. A mistaken presumption of male grief is that men are brave and strong and do not hurt as much as women. Because statistically women live longer than men, much of grief literature and many grief support groups are biased toward women. Men are remarkably underserved in grief ministry. But there are countless husbands, fathers, sons, brothers, uncles, and grandfathers who grieve and need the support of a group.

For many men, the death of a woman may result in social disconnection that leads to isolation, loneliness, and depression. This is one of the most difficult aspects of grief for men. Most women are networked for emotional support through family and friends. For example, in a marriage, the wife typically instigates and facilitates most relationships. It typically is an extra burden of grief for men to sustain meaningful contact with others. The men in our grief support group developed social bonds; they became friends. They met regularly for lunch or dinner to talk, share their grief, and find respite from the loneliness of mealtimes.

For many months one of the most faithful members of our group was a young man about thirty years old whose beautiful young wife had died four years earlier of leukemia. Intuitively he realized that he had not done the work of grief at the time of her death. He had postponed grief. He knew that he could not love again in the joy of life for which God had created him until he had dealt constructively with his lingering grief. Like this brave young man, those who grieve for months on end—and sometimes even years—after the death of a loved one may have some unresolved issues that stem from their loss, such as guilt and regret. The Beyond the Broken Heart program guides those who grieve toward the spiritual resolution of many of the lingering emotions of grief so that it is then possible to live forward again.

A support group helps those who grieve realize that they are not alone in their loss and pain. When we share our grief by interacting with others who are also grieving, we join hands and hearts with those experiencing many of the same emotions and spiritual challenges of grief.

As we receive the support and encouragement of a group, slowly we make our way through the journey of grief toward a life of renewed hope, which the scriptures promise we will have.

When those who grieve experience the ongoing ministry of comfort in the church, they are inspired to lead, comfort, and encourage others who grieve, thus giving back to the pastoral care outreach of the church.  The cause and effect of comfort is biblical when we comfort others with the comfort that we have received from God and others. Grief ministry is the love of Christ in action.

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