Three months after my husband died in 2004, I was desperate for an outlet to express my grief beyond the walled-in safety of my journal. For years a neighborhood church advertised a grief recovery program on a portable billboard when sessions were forming. I called and told the person in charge a little of my story. Because this clergy leader seemed rather indifferent to my need—perhaps he was just distracted—I quickly dismissed the idea of a group with almost panicked relief.
Later that year, a pastoral care minister at my church asked how I was doing. The dangling, painful, unspoken end of the inquiry was “without Leighton.” Perhaps he thought that I would be “over it.” It would be many more months before light dawned into the darkness of my grief.
Learning to Lead
Almost two years later, I felt God gently asking me to start and lead a grief support group at our church. I was certain that I could never lead a group because I had never been a “joiner.” Though it was not a loud clarion call, God gently urged me to consider the needs of others in grief. God persisted despite my timid response, “Who, me? But God, you know that I am not a group person.” At times my father would remind me, “Never say what you’re not going to do because that’s exactly what you will end up doing.” Within the wisdom of its sly double negative, this little saying has proven true time and again in life.
Without a real plan in mind, I contacted the pastoral care minister at our church about starting a grief group for widows and widowers. She and her staff colleagues offered their wholehearted support. At the time, even our church of over ten thousand members did not offer an ongoing, structured grief support program. Imagine a village without a first aid kit.
Anyone who has a heart for those who grieve can lead a grief support group—a pastor or church staff person, a pastoral care volunteer or a Stephen minister, a layperson who has been asked to lead a group (or who has volunteered to lead one), or a professional counselor who plans to lead a group in the community or a church. To be an effective leader, it is not necessary to have pastoral or counseling experience—only a desire to minister to those who grieve. When you step out in faith to lead, listen, care for, and nurture those who grieve, you give the gift of yourself to others.
If you have never led a group and you are wavering in your self-confidence, perhaps my story will encourage you to consider if this ministry may be God’s direction for your life. As a group leader, you offer to those who grieve the humanity and wisdom of a life tried and tested. If you are a leader who has lost a loved one to death, you affirm by your witness that there is life beyond a broken heart.
The faithfulness and deep spiritual needs expressed by the members of our group inspired and comforted me. At our bi-monthly meetings, I presented the topics of grief and together we shared our quest to both understand and grow through our grief. We cared for and helped each other as we delved inside our broken hearts.
The Beyond the Broken Heart Program
In retrospect it is interesting that, at the time, there was no curriculum with formatted materials for leading a grief group. Based on my own experience of grief, I prayerfully considered what a group might need and want to hear. My conclusion was that there must be real spiritual and topical content to address the sorrow and pain of those suffering from a broken heart.
The Beyond the Broken Heart group program uses topical references from the Bible, a DVD, and group discussion to illuminate the unfamiliar emotions and questions of grief over the course of eight sessions, with the option of two supplemental sessions. The program offers significant flexibility for creating a time structure that will work for your group, whether you are meeting in a church, another community location, or a home. Together with the group you will explore many of the spiritual and practical issues of grief and consider specific coping strategies.
One of the benefits of the program is that it establishes a positive rhythm between presentation and discussion and offers practical suggestions for successfully managing the group dynamic. With the participant book, the DVD, and the leader guide, a group leader is well equipped to meet those who grieve at their place of great spiritual and emotional need. Within each session, there is time for sharing. Sometimes in a group there is a person who demands a disproportionate amount of the group’s attention. As a leader, you are supported and directed by the content so that the possibility of distraction from the focus of the group is minimized.
The leader guide offers suggestions on forming and sustaining grief ministry, how-tos for promoting, planning, and facilitating a successful group experience, and suggestions for creating a group to serve several churches or community programs. It also includes detailed information about starting a group, suggestions for effective leadership of the group, examples of challenges that sometimes arise within a group and their solutions, and guidelines for leading the group sessions. Finally, there is a list of some specific ground rules that will help establish and maintain the integrity, privacy, and safety of the group. The program is well-suited for ongoing use in the church.
As the leader of a grief support group, likely you will experience that those who grieve long to tell their stories so that others will understand the pivotal moments in life when their worlds forever changed. When participants open their hearts to share their stories within the sanctity of the group—certain they are heard by others who know the experience of death and grief—they realize that they are not alone. As participants journey through “the valley of the shadow of death,” you can help guide the way back to fullness of life. Grief will be transformed as the group moves in community toward new life in gratitude for the steadfast love and faithfulness of God: “For the Lord is good; his steadfast love endures forever, and his faithfulness to all generations” (Psalm 100: 4-5 NRSV).