Following the death of a loved one or friend, every person will experience grief and loss. When this happens, our response as a church family is to pray for the person, send a card or text message, or visit and support them. We may ask details about the nature of the loss, and we do all we can to be there for the person.
The funeral comes and we tenderly talk about how we knew the person, how loved they were. Then following the funeral, we might sense those awkward moments when we meet the person who suffered the loss, and we really don’t know what more to say…
Avoidance can be painful
A certain brother shared with me following his loss that, as he was coming into church, he noticed that a few folks seemed to take a beeline in the other direction towards the toilet or the kitchen. He shared how it could have been totally coincidental but, somehow, he didn’t think so. I suppose sometimes it seems easier to avoid a potentially awkward conversation. Sadly, avoiding those who have been bereaved – whether intentionally or unintentionally – can be painful for those who are grieving.
Talking about death and bereavement doesn’t come easy for anyone!
The truth is, talking about bereavement doesn’t come easy for anyone. Consequently, once we have heard the deceased person was a Christian, we say: “Well, thank God for the blessed hope!” as if to say, because they were a believer there is no need to be sad or to grieve, “so cheer up and move on!”
Sometimes our reference to the hope of the resurrection may be said because we don’t really know what else to say. As a result, we then assume it is our job to make the person feel better (in order to make ourselves feel less uncomfortable), and so we usher them towards the hope of seeing their loved one’s again in God’s Kingdom. Sadly, when we do this, we reinforce a silent message – namely, ‘ignore the feelings associated with grief, and don’t talk about them because it makes others feel awkward.’
Opening a conversation about a deceased loved one helps
Now I know that feeling very well. The uncomfortable, speechless and awkward moment, when we really don’t know what to say or do when in the presence of one who is grieving. That experience is something we would rather not endure but, to use an expression, “It is what it is”. It is just that – uncomfortable!
Therefore, if we can accept that fact with courage, we can then weather the discomfort and become a source of comfort. By choosing to be open and honest, we could say to the bereaved: “I really have no idea how you might be feeling, please tell me if you can, what does it feel like to come to church without your loved one?” Being willing to start a conversation about the deceased person will come as a breath of fresh air.
To grieve or not to grieve
In I Thessalonians 4:13 (KJV), it reads: “But I would not have you to be ignorant, brethren, concerning them which are asleep, that ye sorrow not, even as others which have no hope”. This means that believers will sorrow, they will grieve. Therefore, if we try to encourage someone to journey through their grief, we enable them to avoid repressed grief, which can lead to depression and a multitude of problems. Allowing them the time to grieve at their own pace is crucial to their healing.
This was the case of one senior pastor from a certain denomination. A well respected minister, who had served his church at the high levels of administration for many years, had lost his wife of forty-one years to an aggressive form of cancer. Six months had passed, and he was finding things very difficult. Nevertheless, he decided to attend the funeral of a dear friend. While there, his pain and hurt became evident, as he shared with me in a quiet moment, how the resurrection “stuff” was all true and he believed it, but he just wasn’t “there yet.” This illustration underscores the point that grieving takes time.
Grief doesn’t only occur after someone has died
However, we have to accept that grief doesn’t only arise after someone has died. Grief comes following the loss of something significant to one’s sense of identity, purpose, security and well-being. Therefore, one may experience grief following a regrettable separation or divorce; the unexpected loss of a job or position in church; the tragic loss of a limb, bodily function or ability. Grief is also recognised as a part of the ageing process as people come to terms with the loss of day-to-day abilities.
Creating a safe space and place provides healing
Creating a space for people to talk about their experience of grief helps the grieving recover in more holistic ways. When we give permission for others to grieve, we not only allow folks to go thorough grief, but to grow through grief.
Men grieve differently
However, it is important to note that men grieve differently than women. Some men will try to occupy themselves with activity as a way to process the grief, by not directly thinking about it. Yet other men may become withdrawn and quiet, while other men may become emotional and very tearful. However, the point is that, while the expression of grief may differ, it is important to allow men to come to terms with their feelings. As a man comes to terms with those feelings, he will recognise that those feelings are driving his expression of grief.
A certain man had lost his beloved sister to a heart condition. Having ignored pleas to go to the doctor, she suffered a heart attack that later proved fatal. Following the loss, he threw himself into his work, and withdrew from his family and other social activities and, at times, had flash points where he became aggressive in his conservational style. As we spent time together, he shared how he was feeling angry with his sister for having not gone to get checked; how angry he was with everyone, and how livid he was with God for not healing her. As we identified the anger, we explored how he could own and validate that anger and not feel guilty for being angry. We explored how he could then find ways to express that anger in more helpful ways, such as resuming his sporting activities of jogging, and working out at the gym, as a release for those pent-up energies. Over time his anger abated.
Men grieve far more than they are willing to show or discuss
You see, the truth is that men grieve far more than they are willing to show, but often we assume that men don’t really grieve because we don’t see them grieving in the way society or our church might expect them to.
The reality that men grieve in very significant and sometimes painful ways is indicated by Mark Mercer, in his book, ‘What Women Should Know About Male Grief,’ The truth is, all who have suffered a loss grieve, and will grieve differently. What is important is how to encourage the grieving process that leads to a wholesome Holy Spirit- filled anointed healing for each person, and particularly to be alert to the sometimes less obvious ways a man might take. To this end, the book ‘The Way Men Heal’ written by Tom Golden, offers some meaningful insights for those working in Men’s ministry, and emphasises the need to be intentional in addressing the needs and feelings men encounter, as they journey through bereavement.
Helping men, women and young people to grieve
Helping men, women and young people deal with grief, is by no means easy, but it is one of the best acts of support we can offer to those who may be experiencing the pain of grief. Developing a programme to empower those who are on that journey can be a powerful way to minister God’s grace to the bereaved. By careful, intentional and prayerful planning that is Holy Spirit-led, we will enable people to experience good grief in the church.