What Leaders Need to Know about Grief

Practical and Biblical Perspectives on Supporting Those Who Are Grieving

A few days after my eldest sister passed away, I was called upon to lead the worship service at my church. I was angry and disappointed at this expectation. Shouldn’t I get time off to grieve? Does my unwillingness, and to some degree, inability, to function mean I have lost faith? Does the constant knot in my stomach and the desire to stay in bed mean I doubt that God knows what’s best? Will I ever lead worship again? These were the questions I rehearsed in my mind all day long.

I decided that I needed to be strong for my parents, my siblings, my children, the church choir—of which my sister had been an integral part. I could not allow myself to grieve … at least, not yet. So, I carried on: helping to plan the funeral, selecting my sister’s final resting place, sorting through her earthly belongings.

My family made it through those first days after her passing with the support of church mothers who prepared meals for us and an unending wave of sympathy cards and phone calls. We had a constant flow of visitors. Then, the calls stopped. The visits lessened and the meals stopped coming. The only thing that remained was a hollowness in my heart that I could not explain.

Grief that Persisted

Months after we buried my sister, it occurred to me that the perfect time to grieve never came.

I never took the time to check in with myself. I knew that all was not well because during every church service I still chose to sit where I did not have a clear view of where my sister used to sit. Certain choir renditions forced me to leave the sanctuary because she had been the lead vocalist for those songs. Even so, with a broken heart, I took on a leadership role outside of the music ministry.

As a leader in my church, I did not feel safe admitting to anyone, especially clergy, that I felt broken, lost, afraid. In whom could I confide that I feared dying at my sister’s age? A number just over 40. It didn’t appear that anyone would acknowledge my grief. It seemed there was an unspoken expectation that by now all should be normal again. I should be getting on with life. “Your sister is in a better place,” they said. “We know you loved her, but Jesus loves her best.” “You know you’ll see her again, so don’t worry,” others chimed in. These and other comforting words were thrown at me every time I appeared to be sad.

Understanding the Grief Process

Most people do not set out to harm those who are grieving. They just don’t know what helps and what hurts. Identifying and acknowledging grief, and understanding the grief process goes a long way in helping those who are grieving.

It helps to acknowledge that grief is a common factor in the human experience. Christ-followers grieve. We grieve the loss of loved ones, property, relationships, jobs, even our health. All experiences of grief should be handled with care and an awareness that a grieving heart takes time to heal. The grief period is not the same for everyone. It often depends on the kind of loss. Some people go through the process faster than others, and the pace should not be used as an index of a person’s level or lack of faith.

As in my experience, sudden death carries with it a range of difficulties that are made worse by shock and lack of preparation. Since my sister lived with me for most of my life, even at the time of her death, the loss required significant reconfiguring of household activities, especially to help my children cope. In the case of a family losing the main breadwinner, grief may be more intense alongside the added burden of concern about future subsistence. When suicide occurs, family members and close friends may wrestle with grief, anger, confusion, and debilitating guilt.

These circumstances and feelings complicate the grief process and require understanding. Pastors should be sensitive and flexible in accommodating grief, even if it means the grieving person cannot attend church services or function in his or her role for a while.

Healthy Grieving

Church leaders should focus on helping the bereaved to grieve in a healthy way. Some people may choose not to cry, especially if they view tears as a sign of weakness, while others may behave in unusual ways, sometimes to get attention, sometimes just in blundering through their grief. They may seem hopeless or show other negative emotions. These varied emotions can provide clues as to where the griever is in the healing process.

At first, the grieving person might be in denial. He or she might not be ready to face the fact of the loss and will need time to get past this phase. If trauma is part of the loss, it may be useful to nudge the individual or family toward professional counseling or people equipped through American Bible Society’s Trauma Healing Institute. Try to learn the details surrounding the circumstances to determine what kind of help is required.

Sometimes, a change of environment is what’s needed to begin the healing process. I found solace in visiting other churches in my neighborhood. The unfamiliar faces meant there were no expectations of me, and no one assumed they knew the meaning of my tears.

Do’s and Don’ts

Christians, and especially clergy, often default to giving preachy advice. This should be resisted. Grieving hearts cannot take in sermons. At best they may be able to digest bits of Scripture, such as: “The Lord is near to those who are discouraged; he saves those who have lost all hope” (Psalm 34:18). If you must preach, let it be a sermon in deed. Grieving individuals and families are more inclined to receive your show of kindness than listen to words that may not immediately alleviate their pain.

In the case of the death of a loved one, the grieving individual and family are often left alone after the funeral takes place. While it might not be practical for people to continue to assist, church leaders should not lose sight of the ongoing need for follow-up long after the funeral. Schedule times to check in at reasonable intervals so that the bereaved people do not feel as if their privacy is being imposed upon. For example, one or two caring individuals from a local church can be assigned to check in after one month, three to six months, and nine to twelve months.

Some grieving individuals and families may be open to having visitors and prayer. Call ahead to be sure they can see you, and be sure to let them know they will not need to cater to you during your visit. While visiting, encourage them to talk about how they are feeling, but be respectful if they prefer not to talk. Do not be like Job’s friends who made Job miserable by casting blame on him for his experience (see Job 16:2).

Be careful not to belittle whatever they feel, be it anger, fear, or deep sadness. Sometimes, just being a good listener is all the medicine needed at that moment. “Listen before you answer. If you don’t, you are being stupid and insulting” (Proverbs 18:13).

Other practical ways to help could include:

  • Preparing or providing meals for the family or individual.
  • Picking up their dry cleaning or doing their laundry, if they are comfortable with that kind of assistance.

Grief does not come in a one-size fits all package, but no matter the circumstance, we can rest assured that God understands grief and provides what is needed to care for those who are grieving. I often take heart in Scripture’s promise:

“Let us give thanks to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the merciful Father, the God from whom all help comes! He helps us in all our troubles, so that we are able to help others who have all kinds of troubles, using the same help that we ourselves have received from God”

2 Corinthians 1:3-4 

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