I had just taken my first pastorate at Bethel Baptist Church. It was a wonderful church filled with loving people who allowed a fresh-out-of-seminary pastor to get his feet wet in the real world. The members embraced my wife and me as part of their family. They tolerated some less than stellar preaching with grace and encouragement. Those people will always hold a special place in my heart.
In seminary I had been taught the stages of grief and how to perform a funeral service. I am grateful for that education, but the real education came once someone in the flock died and the church looked to me their shepherd for support and guidance.
Bill and Audrey Whichard along with their three adult daughters and their families were in that church. On the day we were moving into the parsonage, I took a few minutes to drop by and visit Miss Audrey who had cancer and was not doing well. I met a remarkable woman of faith and her faithful husband who immediately accepted me as pastor. They loved my wife and me, and we gladly returned that love. We became what God intended the church to be – family.
It was not very long into my tenure at Bethel that I was called to the hospital. Miss Audrey was not doing well and the family had been called in. I wasn’t sure what to do, so I packed up my Bible and some sermon study material and went to be with the family. I’d go into ICU to visit. I prayed. I conversed with the family. And I spent a little time reading and preparing for the coming Sunday in the waiting area. As I remember it, it was a long day.
I was in the ICU with Miss Audrey’s family when she took her last breath. I had never been that close to death. It was not like what I’d seen on TV or in the movies. It was surreal and awkward. We had all watched the vital signs declining on the monitor. We had hung on every breath. Then she exhaled one final time. The monitor indicated no heartbeat. Miss Audrey was no longer with us. The nurse came in to check and confirmed what we already knew. It’s hard to remember what happened next. I think I led the family in prayer, but honestly I’m not sure. I do remember feeling numb.
Afterward, we collected all our personal items from the waiting area, we hugged each other and walked out of the hospital to our cars. I had not cried during the whole episode, not because I am hard-hearted but in part because I felt I needed to be strong for the family. It was when I got to the car that I leaned over the hood and wept.
I remember the home visits following her death, the trip to the funeral home to see Miss Audrey’s body, and the funeral service. I even remember snippets of what I said. That event was a life-changer for me, and it was the beginning of a greater understanding of what it takes to walk with a family through the death of a loved one. For those of you who struggle with what to say to those who are grieving, I offer the following advice gleaned from real-world experience – more experience than I ever thought I’d get.
1) Be There for the Family… but Not Too Long.
Your presence is a blessing, but don’t stay so long that it ceases to be a blessing. The family is tired and stressed. A short visit with a promise to return when things have settled down is most welcomed. The last thing a grieving person or family needs is to feel like they have to entertain guests.
2) It’s Okay to Feel Awkward.
What do I say? What do I do? These are common questions that most people have, yes, even pastors. No situation with death or dying is the same. Some families grieve quietly and others grieve with loud weeping. Neither is right or wrong. It’s just different. Accept that each person grieves in their own way and just love them through it.
3) Avoid Trite Expressions.
When Job’s friends showed up while he sat grieving in the ashes, they just sat their with him for seven days and nights with speaking (Job 2:11-13). It was when they opened their mouths that they inserted their feet snuggly inside them. Finding the right words to say is a challenge, but saying empty words just for the sake of saying something does precious little good.
You’ve all heard expressions like “He’s in a better place,” or “God only takes the best people,” or “She’s an angel now,” or “I know how you feel.” The attempt is to say something comforting, but after the grieving person has heard phrases like that from person after person it just becomes so much static. What might you say instead? How about “I really loved your grandmother,” or “Your dad was my best friend,” or “I’m truly sorry for your loss,” or “I’ll be calling you tomorrow and arrange to bring by some food.” Just make sure what you’re saying is meaningful and not just more oft-repeated phrases.
4) If You Make a Promise to the Family, then Honor It.
If you promise to pray for them, then pray for them. If you promise to call, then call. If you promise to follow up in a few days, then follow up. A promise made is only a blessing if it is a promise kept.
5) It’s Okay to Cry.
Genuine tears show that you hurt with the family. Sometimes they are more comforting than any words that could be spoken.
6) Remember that the Grief Doesn’t End When the Funeral Is Over.
The grieving process can last for two years or more. If you’re forgetful by nature, put a reminder in your calendar to call the grieving family in a week or to place a Gideon Bible in memory of the person who passed. Think about inviting a widow or widower to your home for dinner in a couple of weeks. Be mindful of things you can do to help ease the transition like mowing a yard or bringing over a meal. Don’t be afraid to share stories of how the life of the person who recently died impacted yours, or if you find a picture of that person in a photo album at home, send it to them. Be there for the grieving person or family over the long haul.
I’m sure that is so much more that I could write about this subject. Feel free to add your own to this list. Death is hard but it is part of life. Grieving is something that all of us go through. When we share the weight of it, the load becomes easier to bear. Most of all, bring Jesus’ love and grace into the situation. When you don’t know what to do, He always does.