h, God! This isn’t supposed to happen to me!” I screamed.
I had just discovered the dead body of our eighteen-year-old son. Two days before his death, he had been treated for mononucleosis and had been given clearance to go on the annual church ski trip. But on February 6, 1991, I discovered his body at 8:20 a.m. I still remember the details of that moment as though it happened this morning.
Changes in My Ministry
Denny’s death changed the trajectory of my pastoral ministry as I struggled to survive the sudden and unexpected shock of losing him. Autopsy results revealed that he died from “complications due to mono.” Our entire family was thrown into a horrific nightmare from which we thought we would never awaken.
After the loss of our son, scores of individuals and families have reached out to me, asking for help and advice as they approached the coming death of a family member or dealt with the shock of a sudden loss. I still recall the words of one man as he walked into my office: “My wife told me to come and see you because you know all about pain.”
He was right. While traveling this road with fellow mourners, I have learned, much that has affected the way I minister to others who have suffered the loss of a loved one.
The Differences Between Grief and Mourning
First, I have learned the differences between grief and mourning. We often use one word “grief” for both when in fact, the person is mourning.
Let me explain.
Grief is characterized by the heaviness of spirit a person feels when he or she experiences the loss of a loved one. The griever might be laughing on the outside but crying on the inside. Mourning, on the other hand, is an observable sadness. Some of the obvious signs of mourning are: crying, sad countenance, despondent tone of voice, slumping body language, and loss of interest in things the person previously enjoyed.
These signs of mourning are often confused with depression. The two look very much the same. However, with depression, a person does not always know the reason or cause. In many cases, a professional therapist must help discover the origin and treatment for depression.
Grief, on the other hand, is connected to the loss of a loved one. Again, a grieving person can often disguise or hide his or her grief, but mourning is easily observed. Mourning happens when a person allows the painful feelings to go public.
Three “H” Keys for Ministering to Those Who Mourn
As we attempt to minister to those who mourn, here are three “H” keys to keep in mind: 1) Hang around, 2) Hug them, and 3) Hush up.
1) Hang Around: When you receive word that someone has died and the family is calling for you, it is important to drop what you are doing and go to the individual or family that is reaching out to you. Whether the death is expected or unexpected, your immediate presence can speak in ways that words cannot.
2) Hug Them: When you arrive at the location of the grieving family, don’t hesitate to open your arms and embrace those who are mourning the loss. Quite often, you will be met at the door by the mourners who will approach you with tears and arms wide open. Don’t hesitate to receive them and embrace those who are grieving in a way that is appropriate at the moment. Allow them to express their sorrow. For most, a compassionate hug or meaningful touch can be important in times of grief. The minister will, of course, want to gauge the receptiveness of this kind of gesture based upon his or her knowledge of the family members, but ministers should not be surprised if a simple hug is called for.
3) Hush Up: Remember the words we speak and don’t speak at the time of death. A pastor’s verbal response will vary depending upon the situation. For example, if an elderly person has had a painful chronic illness for a long period of time, the death may be a relief to the family and caregivers.
In contrast to this, consider the death of a teenage son or daughter, killed suddenly in a car accident. With the first example, the pastor might quote or read scriptures that affirm the home going of the deceased and offer comfort to the family. In the second example, the parents may be screaming, as I was when I lost my son, “God, why has this happened to me?”
As pastors, we must remember that we do not possess all of the answers in times such as this. It is best to let the questions flow and to acknowledge our inability to answer them. When grief is fresh, often the less we say, the better. These are the moments when we should resist saying, “God needed more angels,” or, “The good die young.” Even theological, helpful phrases like, “We should be thankful your child was a Christian,” can be painful and unhelpful in the immediate throes of grief. This list of inappropriate things we might say is longer than we can imagine. In moments like this, our pastoral care might be more effective if we simply “hush,” trusting the Holy Spirit to work even in the silence of our presence together.
Following Up with Those who Mourn
The ministry of follow up is vital. After the visitation and funeral, a wise pastor notes the important dates of the deceased. For example, if the deceased was a spouse, go to your calendar and mark the date of the death, his or her birth, and the couple’s wedding anniversary. Then, the following year, when those dates roll around, write a short note or make a phone call and check in on the surviving spouse. He or she will never forget it. Likewise, with the death of a child, be sure to write the child’s death and birth dates on your calendar. When you acknowledge these important dates, the parents, siblings, and grandparents will feel as though their sorrow has been acknowledged and will often wish to take the opportunity to speak more with you about their grief journey. You may be allowed into that sacred space, where only a few are allowed to enter.
Looking back, the people who helped me the most were not the ones who quoted scriptures to me. The ones who stand out to me were the ones who said, with tears streaming down their faces, “I don’t know what to say.” They simply hugged me and allowed me to pour out my sorrow. They were the ones who hung around, hugged me, and then hushed up.