Nearly 20 people gathered in Lisa’s* living room. We usually met at the church for Sunday evening Bible study, but Lisa had cancer, and the side effects of her treatment had kept her home. So, we brought church to her that night.
We sang together and read Scripture. Then Lisa told her story, testifying to God’s faithfulness in the face of illness. The pastor, my husband, asked, “Lisa, can you share with us what it is like to walk in the valley of the shadow of death?” “Keith!” she exclaimed as loudly as her chemo-weakened voice would allow, “How could you ask a thing like that?”
Lisa and her family had already met with hospice staff. Her doctors had indicated that treatment would not provide a cure but would simply give her more good days for at least a while. But Lisa was not ready to hear or speak the word “death,” so she had forbidden her family and anyone else, including her pastor, to voice this thought in her presence.
A few weeks later, on a Sunday morning, as we prepared to begin the worship service, a call came from Kevin*, Lisa’s husband. Lisa was having a bad morning; the hospice volunteers said they saw signs that she had only a short time left. Kevin asked if we would please pray for them. As soon as the service ended, we drove the short distance to Kevin and Lisa’s home.
As the front door opened, we heard the rasping sounds of Lisa fighting for breath. She lay in a hospital bed in the guest room at the end of the hallway. After visiting for a few minutes with Kevin and getting the latest update on her condition, we squeezed into Lisa’s room. Her gasps sounded painful and anxious. Her whole body trembled with the effort. Her eyes never opened, and she seemed unaware of our presence as we spoke gently to her.
We surrounded the bed and held hands to pray. Fighting my own tears, I asked God to give Lisa peace. I asked the Heavenly Father to help Lisa rest and, in God’s timing, find release from her human suffering; I asked that her journey into God’s arms would go gently. As I prayed the word “peace,” Lisa’s breathing began to calm, and her hands stopped shaking. With the final “amen,” Keith and I looked at each other and signaled that we would slip away now, while Kevin remained at Lisa’s side, watching her chest rise with each slight breath.
Before we even reached the front door, Kevin called out to us, “She’s gone,” and we hurried back to his side.
MEANS OF GRACE
People like Lisa and Kevin sit in our congregations each week. They live in our neighborhoods; they shop in the same stores we do. They grieve over a variety of losses: unemployment, chronic or terminal illness, divorce, and death are perhaps the most visible. Someone once said that grief is our ‘birthright”—by virtue of entering the human race, we are guaranteed to face loss and grief as part of our lives.
Scripture calls us to mourn with those who mourn (Romans 12:15) and to share in the fellowship of Christ’s sufferings (Philippians 3:10). Yet many Christians report that in their times of deepest pain, they sense their pastor or others in the church turning away from them. Sometimes, this is plain insensitivity, but I would guess that most often this is unintentional. Often in my interactions with pastors, I’ll hear, “I’m just not sure what to say,” “I am afraid I’ll remind them of their loss, so I just don’t mention it,” or “I don’t have enough time for all the hurting people.” Consequently they avoid the grieving out of their own fear, discomfort, or overload.
John Wesley included “visiting the sick” in his list of means through which we experience God’s grace.1 He called on all believers to visit those in any “state of affliction,” including, but not limited to, physical illness. Those who grieve the death of a loved one certainly fit the description of “afflicted.” Wesley anticipated his listeners suggesting it would be more helpful to pay for a doctor to visit than to actually go themselves. He responded that we should supply the physical and financial needs if possible, but the visit held additional benefit for the soul of the sick one and brought grace to the visitor. The ones who visited grew in their understanding of the suffering of others and gained a renewed perspective on their own problems.
If Wesley could address Christian leaders today, he might simply challenge us to just show up! Some might suggest that sending flowers to the hospital or a casserole dish to the funeral dinner is enough. But our ministry of presence brings grace to the afflicted. We don’t need to worry about saying the right thing, fixing problems, or making the pain go away. Our caring enough to show up brings grace to the hurting.
Lisa needed her church family to care for her. Coming to her home for an evening service witnessed to God’s grace in her life. We accepted her restrictions on the use of the word “death.” Keith, having mentioned it, let her know we could talk about it whenever she was ready. Our role as visitors was to listen and love.
TASKS OF GRIEF
William Worden, professor at the Harvard Medical School and the Rosemead Graduate School of Psychology, has conducted extensive research in the area of bereavement. He has identified four tasks that the griever must accomplish.2 Understanding these tasks may help us as we seek to give pastoral care in times of loss. They have a logical progression, but they are not distinct steps or stages; they may overlap each other at times.
The first task is to accept the reality of the loss. Encouraging the individual to talk about the death can help the newly bereaved understand both emotionally and intellectually that the loss has occurred. Our task as caregivers is to listen, listen, listen.
REJOICE WITH THOSE WHO REJOICE; MOURN WITH THOSE WHO MOURN.
ROMANS 12:15 (NIV)
Lisa reacted to Keith’s gentle question about walking in the valley of the shadow of death because she wasn’t ready to accept the reality of the loss her diagnosis indicated. We needed to let her take the lead until the time came when she could no longer deny the loss.
In essence, when we walk alongside the grieving, we are witnesses to their pain. As witnesses, we are present in their journey and can testify to what takes place. We can also testify to the evidences of God’s grace along the way.
The second task for the griever is to experience the pain of grief. This may be the hardest, most important task. The bereaved must accept the painful reality of the loss because if pain is not allowed and encouraged to run its course, it may surface at some later time. This effect resembles what happens when a swimmer tries to hold a beach ball under water. At some point, the ball will pop up with great force, out of the control of the swimmer. No amount of avoidance, joking, or covering up can keep pain away forever. Our only choice as caregivers is whether to stay with the griever (perhaps even crying with them) or to abandon them to cry alone.
This pain doesn’t look the same for everyone. Some people cry, some talk, some work out their pain in vigorous exercise, and others write out their pain in journaling. No one can dictate or predict how long this will take. Each person has a different timetable to deal with grief.
This task can also be the hardest for the caregiver. When Lisa died, we all grieved as a community. Some attempted to avoid their own pain by offering Kevin platitudes and easy answers. Yes, Lisa was in a better place. Yes, we’re glad she no longer suffers. Yes, God works in all things for good (Romans 8:28). Kevin would find comfort in those truths in days to come. Before he could do so, he needed to accept and feel his own pain and sadness for his loss. Until he did that, these promises seemed empty and simplistic.
The third task is to adjust to an environment in which the deceased is missing. This process may take a while because the survivor is usually not aware of all the roles the deceased played until after the death. For example, if a man dies in February, his widow may not even think about how he hung the Christmas lights until the next November. A full calendar year should reveal all the seasonal tasks, holiday traditions, and significant dates that compound the feeling of loss. Learning new skills by performing necessary tasks previously done by a spouse helps the survivors assume increasing responsibility for their lives. The fourth task for the griever is to withdraw the emotional energy invested in the deceased and invest it in new relationships. This is not “returning to normal” but establishing a new normal. Support and encouragement of a loving community can provide a strong incentive to make new friends and develop new interests as soon as the person is able.
Prior to Lisa’s diagnosis, Kevin had taken great interest in a missions project. He put those plans on hold to care for her. After Lisa’s death, Kevin participated in a Work and Witness trip. He stayed connected with the local congregation. He later met a single woman at another church, and they eventually married. He entered that marriage with strength because of how he accomplished the tasks of grief listed here.
I WANT TO KNOW CHRIST—YES, TO KNOW THE POWER OF HIS RESURRECTION AND PARTICIPATION IN HIS SUFFERINGS, BECOMING LIKE HIM IN HIS DEATH.
PHILIPPIANS 3:10 (NIV)
Another example of this reinvestment is a woman from our former congregation. She and her husband had enjoyed over 60 years of marriage and ministry together. Shortly after her husband’s death, she went to a local hospital and volunteered to work in the Intensive Care Nursery (NICU). Several mornings a week, she took a bus to the hospital and sat rocking babies, pouring out the love she had given her husband while he lived.
PASTOR AS WITNESS
As we reach out to the Lisas and Kevins in our churches and in our neighborhoods, our presence can serve as a means of God’s grace, bringing comfort, healing and restoration. Walking with the hurting on their journey through grief takes time, energy, and commitment. The weight may seem heavy at times. But nothing can match the blessing of witnessing the healing grace of God in the griever’s life. Because we have been there, we can testify to what we have seen and rejoice in God’s presence on the journey.
Judith A. Schwanz is professor of pastoral care and counseling at Nazarene Theological Seminary
*Note: Names have been changed.
1. “On Visiting the Sick” John Wesley’s Sermon 98. http://www.umcmission.org/Find-Resources/Global-Worship-and-Spiritual-Growth/John-Wesley-Sermons/Sermon-98-On-Visiting-the-Sick
2. Worden, William. Grief Counseling and Grief Therapy: A Handbook for the Mental Health Practitioner, Fourth Edition (New York: Springer Publishing Company, 2008).