A Pastoral Response to Grief

Gordon H. Cook, Jr.

Ordained Servant: June–July 2010


Also in this issue

The Importance of the Book of Church Order

Crossroads: Your Life and the Medical Community

Books on Grieving: A Bibliographical Essay

The Second Coming

Our Common Experience of Grief

Grief is wave upon wave of strong emotions, interrupted by moments of total emptiness: tears—anger—guilt—fear ...

No one ever told me that grief felt so like fear. I am not afraid, but the sensation is like being afraid. The same fluttering in the stomach, the same restlessness, the yawning. I keep on swallowing.

At other times it feels like being mildly drunk, or concussed. There is a sort of invisible blanket between the world and me. I find it hard to take in what anyone says. Or perhaps, hard to want to take it in. It is so uninteresting. Yet I want the others to be about me. I dread the moments when the house is empty. If only they would talk to one another and not to me.[1]

Difficulty concentrating—mental fatigue—overwhelming feelings of helplessness—confusion and disorientation—numbness ...

It is almost impossible to set down in writing how we felt. Even as we try to do so now, there is a recurrence of that first awful numbness, as well as the actual physical pain our bodies endured as we let the words of the dean race through our minds over and over again. It was absolutely impossible that David was dead; yet we were assuring one another that this was indeed the case.[2]

Dizziness—nausea—sleep and appetite disturbance—dryness or a lump in the throat—isolation—lack of care for one's own personal needs—difficulty with prayer or Bible reading—difficulty returning to a church gathering ...

You cannot fix grief. It has a timetable of its own. It comes with surges that are unpredictable, punctuated by periods of deep emptiness. It often involves spiritual distress that can shake faith to its very foundations. Significant loss changes everything for us and grief is our natural response.

We usually think of grief as occurring after the death of someone we love. But grief may also occur in anticipation of such a loss. When my sister lay hovering between life and death, I experienced more intense grief than after her death a year later.

Many kinds of loss produce grief. My son recently lost his apartment and most of its contents in a fire. As an artist and collector of books there were many things of great personal value which were lost. During the weeks following the fire he experienced many of the same symptoms of grief which I had experienced in the loss of my sister.

Other losses often produce grief of varying intensities: a miscarriage; the diagnosis of infertility or of a terminal disease especially in a loved one; amputation or the loss of function of some part of one's body; the death of a pet, friend, co-worker, associate, teacher, student, pastor, roommate, or another with whom one has a special relationship; separation or divorce from one's spouse; loss of employment or personal resources; the loss of the ability to drive a car, or engage in an important activity; or the personal experience of a disaster. It is vitally important that a pastor recognize signs of grief, regardless of the type of loss which has produced it, so that we may "weep with those who weep" (Rom. 12:15).

Christians and Grief

Scripture has numerous examples of intense grief. Abraham and Isaac mourned the loss of Sarah (Gen. 23:2; 24:67). The Israelites grieved the death of Jacob (Gen. 50:10), Aaron (Num. 20:29), Moses (Deut. 34:8), Samuel (1 Sam. 28:3), Saul and Jonathan (2 Sam. 1:12, 17), Josiah (2 Chron. 35:25), along with many others. Many of the Psalms express intense grief (e.g. Pss. 6, 35, 38, 42, 43, 88). In the New Testament, Jesus withdrew privately to grieve the death of John the Baptist (Matt. 14:13). He openly wept in grief and in empathy with his friends Mary and Martha at the tomb of their brother, Lazarus (John 11:35). Devout believers mourned the death of the deacon Stephen (Acts 8:2). Godly women wept openly for the loss of Tabitha in Joppa (Acts 9:39). Paul had anticipated "sorrow upon sorrow" (Phil. 2:27) and was spared this only by the mercy of God in the illness of Epaphroditus.[3] Yet too often the church discourages grieving. We are made to feel that it is inappropriate to grieve openly. Well-meaning pastors end up sounding more like Job's friends, than good shepherds who comfort the sheep (2 Cor. 1:4).

Some cite the Apostle, "But we do not want you to be uninformed, brothers, about those who are asleep, that you may not grieve as others do who have no hope" (1 Thess. 4:13). This has led some to assume that a truly spiritual Christian does not show grief openly. They turn the meaning of Paul's words into a summons to Stoicism,[4] rather than to a proper Christian grief, which has an unshakable hope grounded in the resurrection of our Savior. Paul does not mean that Christians should not grieve the loss of loved ones, but rather our grief should be tempered by the certain hope that we share in the benefits of Christ's death and resurrection. Paul offers these believers encouragement specifically because they are experiencing grief in the loss of some of their members.

Our firm belief in a bodily resurrection supports us in our times of grief. Our faith in Christ sustains us as we experience grief's troubling feelings. God's word comforts us in the midst of the emptiness. If grief makes us appear weak, then we look to God's grace. " ‘My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.' Therefore I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may rest upon me" (2 Cor. 12:9). Those who grieve deeply know what it is to rest in the strength of Christ in the midst of our weakness.

Our own expressions of grief are shaped by our personalities, culture, gender, family traditions, and maturity. A group of daughters wailed at the funeral of their mother, the sound of their wailing was heard for miles up and down the valley from the little country church. A son stood silently before the coffin of his father, to all outward appearances unmoved, only sharing his feelings privately with his pastor. One family holds a private service at the graveside. Another asks for calling hours, an elaborate funeral, and formal military honors. Siblings create a memorial along the road, marking the spot where their brother died. Devoted fans put flowers at the doorstep of a beloved celebrity. Parents create a park in memory of their daughter who died too young. On Thanksgiving Day, I stop by the grave of my sister to remember and to spend some quiet time with God.

The Work of Grief

Providing pastoral care for a grieving person begins with an understanding of how people work through grief. Elizabeth Kubler-Ross studied this matter extensively and popularized her results in the book On Death and Dying.[5] Her focus was on the anticipatory grief experienced by dying persons. She identified five stages of grief (shock and denial, anger, bargaining, depression, acceptance) which continue to be cited in books about grief. However, people do not always move smoothly through stages of grief, often repeating these "stages" many times over. Her greatest contribution was in offering a research-based approach to the subject.

It was Kubler-Ross's students, Therese Rando and William Worden, who have offered clinically accepted definitions which are widely used by professionals today. Therese Rando focuses upon a process which includes a time of denial and confusion, followed by a time of intense grief, and then a time of diminished grief and re-engagement in the world as a changed person.[6] Our society, which tends to deny death and true grieving,[7] usually measures these periods in terms of days or weeks, when the research suggests months and years.

William Worden has set the standard for grief counseling with his careful distinction between normal grieving and complicated grief. He postulates four tasks of grieving: 1) accepting the reality of the loss; 2) work through the pain of grief; 3) adjust to a new environment after the loss; 4) emotionally relocating the deceased or other changed condition and move on with life.[8]

Beverly set her table for two every afternoon, and every evening she was furious with her husband for not being home on time for dinner. She was angry that he cared more about his work than about her. Sometimes she wondered if he was with someone else for dinner. Jim never came home because he had died tragically in an auto accident on a snowy day in January five years earlier. On one level Bev knew that Jim had died in that accident. But on another level she had not accepted the reality of her loss.

We all think we know a pastor's worst nightmares, but few do. For an evangelical pastor it was a mysterious disease which took the life of his three-and-a-half-year-old son. In his book, Jonathan, You Left Too Soon,[9] Pastor Biebel courageously chronicles not only the decline of his son, but of his own plunge into grief and depression. He candidly chronicles his struggles with God. This is not easy reading, the hurt is raw and unprocessed. Eight years later, the same illness struck a second son, born just a year after the death of his brother. This second event opened old wounds still unhealed. Pastor Biebel writes, "After Jonathan's death, I fought the pain. I never let it overwhelm me. What held me back was the fear that if I truly let myself go, I might never get back again to sanity. The problem was, however, that in fighting it, I never really felt it."[10] It was in this second book that Pastor Biebel finally worked through the pain of his grief.

One day the nurses asked me to visit a man recovering from hip surgery. Every afternoon he became depressed. He shared with me how he had visited the grave of his beloved wife every day at about 4 p.m. for more than twenty years. At first it was convenient as he drove home from work. But after his retirement he continued this well established habit. He would talk with her about the issues in his life. He would pray with her, as they had so often done before her death. In the hospital, unable to visit the grave, he found himself feeling distressed. He shared vivid memories of his beloved wife. The chaplain then visited daily to pray with the man at about 4 p.m., and made a referral to a grief support group. Adjustment to new environments after loss is an ongoing process.

Not all people grieve in the same way. There are several studies that demonstrate that men grieve differently than women,[11] often a source of misunderstanding within the church. Age, personal experiences, culture, and personality also factor into the process of grief in an individual.[12] Even the circumstances surrounding the loss can profoundly influence our experience of grief. Was the death the result of suicide or criminal foul play? Was it unexpected, sudden, or violent? Was it the death of a child, a miscarriage, or a death which is considered untimely?

Helping People Grieve

As a pastor, how you respond to grief in others will reflect on every aspect of your ministry. You have the privileged position of being welcomed into the intimate core of the families you serve. Misusing this privilege can mean the end of your ministry. Few things you do will have greater impact on your ability to administer God's grace than how you react in a setting where there is intense grief.[13]

Here are some important guidelines:

  • Be present without becoming intrusive. Call or go, expressing your condolences, offering them as much support as would be helpful for them. But don't push your way into a situation where you're not wanted.
  • Be respectful of everyone, both the members of your church and those who are not.
  • If you are not sure what to say, then don't say anything. If you are sure what to say, probably keep it to yourself, as this is the path of wisdom.
  • Listen! Listen! Listen! (James 1:19).
  • On that first visit with a grieving person ask them about what happened at the person's death or about how they first heard the news. In the course of that first visit I will try to hear that story several times over. Repeatedly sharing that story helps the person begin to process their loss and their grief.
  • Reassure people. Grieving has such a wide range of feelings and responses that almost anything that is not hurtful to themselves or others falls within the "normal range."
  • Avoid judgments. Sometimes pastors and families get into long discussions of what ifs or should haves. These are rarely helpful and often leave families unnecessarily burdened with guilt feelings.
  • Be sensitive to those around you. This is not usually a time for excessive humor, but neither should the pastor be overly morose.
  • Encourage others to tell their stories. They are likely to bring both tears and laughter, as they serve to affirm the loss and how this loss impacts our lives. Stories can be told verbally, or in writing, or even through artistic or craft expressions.
  • Later, after the first stage of grief has passed, encourage others to find positive ways of expressing their feelings: writing a letter to their loved one, making a memorial quilt, putting together a slideshow of pictures for the calling hours. A woman I was working with recently found great comfort in planting a garden like the ones her mother used to plant, and including a birdhouse because of her father's love of ornithology.

Perhaps most important of all is to deal with your own personal grief. I don't have to tell you that pastors are people too. You have feelings. If you knew the person and had any kind of relationship with him or her then you will experience grief yourself. Pastors often feel that they need to be strong for others. That may be true as you work your way through the initial process of supporting the family or church members and bringing them through a funeral and the like. But you also need to process your own grief. Give yourself time and permission to grieve. Find a good friend or even a counselor to share your stories with. Write a piece about the deceased, or create your own artistic memorial in their honor. Pastors who neglect this may find themselves introducing grief into settings where it is inappropriate. They may also find themselves on the fast-track to stress and burnout.

If the deceased is a member of the church, and especially if he or she was prominent in the life of the church, the church as a whole will also grieve. It is important to provide the congregation with opportunities to talk about their loss and their feelings of loss. Sometimes something as simple as planting a tree or flower garden in honor of a deceased elder or deacon can afford the congregation a focus and positive outlet for their grief. Like individuals, the congregation's grief will continue over a period of months (rather than days).

Two final points. Grief and the holidays do not mix well. Particularly the December holidays with their glitz and glitter are very difficult for people who are grieving. You should be aware of this and seek to provide a quieter comfort for grieving church members at this time. As a chaplain I do several "Blue Christmas" gatherings. They include the biblical material regarding the birth of the Savior but without the "deck the halls" stuff. It is much quieter. And it is more meaningful even for some who are not in active grief.

In the northern reaches of our denomination cemeteries are often closed from December through April. This means that if a loved one dies during these months, their body is kept in a vault until the committal service in the spring. This is a very awkward time for those who grieving for them. It feels like there is something unfinished. Caution families to expect these feelings. Then when you do the committal in May, weeks or even months after the funeral, make the graveside service a little more like the regular funeral service. I do not usually include a second homily, but I do remind those gathered of what was said both about the deceased and about the gospel. After the committal many of those awkward feelings will end. Usually mourner's grief goes back to the normal process of grieving.

Normally the work of grief will occur over the course of a year or two. When it's over, those who have processed their grief will feel a sense of relief and closure. But for a variety of reasons, some will not find their way through this journey of grief. In the next article we will look at complicated grief, grief that generally does not resolve itself with the passing of time and solid pastoral care. Then in a third article we will look at the difficult issue of responding to a suicide.


[1] These are the opening words of A Grief Observed (London: Faber, 1961) by C. S. Lewis, a journal of his experiences in the loss of his beloved wife, Joy Davidman. If you have never read this short work it is well worth your time. But make no mistake, this is not Narnia! It was so controversial that it was originally published under a pseudonym, N.W. Clerk.

[2] C. Everett and Elizabeth Koop, Sometimes Mountains Move (Wheaton: Tyndale, 1979), 11. Written in response to being notified of the death of their son, a college student, in a hiking accident on Mount Washington.

[3] For more detail on these and related matters consider Geoff Walters, Why Do Christians Find It Hard to Grieve? (Bucks, UK: Paternoster, 1997).

[4] Stoicism condemned all passions in favor of virtue. "The mage does not feel sympathy: when his wife or his children die, he reflects that this event is no obstacle to his own virtue, and therefore he does not suffer deeply." No attachment is allowed to threaten the Stoic's ‘holy calm.' Cf. Russell, Bertrand, A History of Western Philosophy, (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1945), 252–70.

[5] New York: Macmillan, 1969. Her work, as well as that of her students, builds upon the systematic approach to the study of grief begun by Erich Lindermann in 1944.

[6] Therese Rando, Grief, Dying, and Death: Clinical Interventions for Caregivers (Champaign, IL: Research, 1984); and Treatment of Complicated Mourning (Champaign, IL: Research, 1993. In her later work, Rando defines her three phases as "avoidance," "confrontation" and "accommodation."

[7] Companies in the United States are not required to provide any bereavement leave. Many companies provide three bereavement days. The question has been raised as to whether the Family and Medical Leave Act can be used to provide additional unpaid bereavement leave. But in its present form it can only do so if a family member has suffered a medical emergency as a result of the stress of grief.

[8] J. William Worden, Grief Counseling & Grief Therapy, A Handbook for the Mental Health Practitioner (New York: Springer, 1991).

[9] Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 1981.

[10] David A. Biebel, If God Is So Good, Why Do I Hurt So Bad? (Colorado Springs: NavPress, 1989).

[11] Carol Staudacher, Men & Grief (Oakland, CA: New Harbinger, 1991).

[12] Helpful here is Wayne Oates, Your Particular Grief (Philadelphia: Westminster/John Knox Press, 1981).

[13] The points that follow are just a few of the important points described in detail in J. Shep Jeffreys, Helping Grieving People When Tears Are Not Enough: A Handbook for Care Providers (New York: Brunner-Routledge, 2005).

Gordon H. Cook, Jr. is the pastor of Merrymeeting Bay Orthodox Presbyterian Church in Brunswick, Maine. He coordinates a Pastoral Care (Chaplain) program for Mid Coast Hospital and its affiliated extended care facility and has an extensive ministry as a hospice chaplain with CHANS Home Health in Brunswick. Ordained Servant Online, June-July 2010.

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Ordained Servant: June–July 2010


Also in this issue

The Importance of the Book of Church Order

Crossroads: Your Life and the Medical Community

Books on Grieving: A Bibliographical Essay

The Second Coming

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