When death strikes

The pastor's role in helping families face the crisis of death.

Larry Yeagley, now retired, has served as a pastor and chaplain.  He lives in Gentry, Arkansas, United States.


When death strikes a parishioner's family, when their world comes crashing down, they need a quick response from their pastor. Pastors who really care will drop everything to be with parishioners at the critical time of death. The first 60 minutes are most crucial in dealing with grief.

Pastors may be experts at saying words appropriate to all occasions. But ministering in the crisis of death is a different matter. It requires adequate preparation. It calls for a readiness to be of service in the first few hours of crisis. It demands an understanding of the family dynamic in grief situations. It involves ongoing support following the death itself.

The pastor's preparation

Begin with listening. Listening may be more important than speaking. Listening does not necessarily mean listening with ears. Listening with the family is more important than listening to the family. Paul Tillich called it the listening love. I call it listening with the heart.

Pastoral preparation requires personal experience. Pastors who have not learned to adjust to personal loss themselves tend to personalize the pain of others. Eugene Kennedy says it well: "Individuals called upon for counsel during emergencies have themselves as their first clients. They must be able to maintain control of their own reactions, to possess themselves ... with sufficient poise, to remain calm and in command. One of the therapeutic activities of the person consulted at a time of emergency is to be a steady presence in the situation."1

The head nurse of the emergency room asked me to visit a family in hysterics. I entered the room quietly and remained silent for some time. The nurse was perplexed at my silence until she understood that our orientations were different. I was trained to listen first. She was trained to act in the saving of life.

Don't build detours. In the crisis of death, pastors must be well purged of what Eugene Kennedy calls rescue fantasy. Pain is inevitable, a necessary part of losing one's assumptive world. Families must go through the valley of pain. Pastors who build detours simply lengthen the grief time and betray their own lack of personal preparation to minister in the crisis of death.

Pastors must avoid being aloof. As Henri J. M. Nouwen cautions: "No one can help anyone without becoming involved, without entering with his whole person into the painful situation, without taking the risk of becoming hurt, wounded, or even destroyed in the process."2

Understand the nature of death and grief. Because pastors frequently meet the crisis of death, they need to have a clear understanding of the nature of death and grief. Reading professional books on death, dying, and grief should be mandatory in a pastor's continuing education regimen. Volunteering with the local hospice and being by the bedside of the dying can provide a depth of understanding unmatched by any seminary course.

The pastor and the first hours of the crisis

During my first week as a hospital chaplain, the moment the beeper sounded I ran to the emergency room, breathlessly rushed in to the family, quickly introduced myself, and began talking. I discovered that my anxiety increased the anxiety of the family. Overcoming that initial impact was next to impossible. My entrance had set the tone for the entire visit.

Here are some basic procedures for the pastor to follow in those first hours of crisis.

Be calm. Whether pastors are called to the hospital or to the home, their demeanor should be one of quietness and calm. Pray for this on the way to the emergency. Enter the room quietly and slowly. Be seated. If there is no seat, lean against a wall or stand comfortably away from the center of the room. Sense the mood in the room. Listen to what everyone has to say. Wait until there is a lull in the conversation. Then quietly identify yourself for the benefit of those who may not know you. After the introduction, say something like "I came to share your sorrow and to help in any way I can."

Don't try to interrogate. Wait for the family to start the conversation. Eugene Kennedy says, "People are always trying to tell the truth about themselves." 3 If they do not tell you what happened the moment you introduce yourself, they may be waiting for a family member to become the spokesperson. They may be too sad to speak about the details. Give them time. Trust the family to give you all the information you need to help them during their crisis.

Pastors may have a need to speak about spiritual realities very early in the crisis, but the family has a need to talk about their loss. Their need takes priority.

Once the family describes to you what happened, it is appropriate to ask questions that will help them to expand the details. The family breaks through denial and acknowledges reality when they discuss the death in depth. This is very important during the first hours of grief.

Help review life. Life review is a major part of grieving. That review ideally should begin near the time of death. If a pastor knew the person, he or she can initiate that review by saying, "I am sad when I think of never visiting Jim again. He was always such an encouragement to me. He must have been special to you, his family." Then listen as they add to the life review. Make short comments that sustain the review.

I have noticed that conversing with a family about the positive attributes and contributions of a loved one's life has a calming effect. They may see no purpose in the death, but seeing an accomplished purpose in the life brings a sense of satisfaction and peace. Sherwin Nuland says, "The greatest dignity to be found in death is the dignity of the life that preceded it. This is a form of hope we can all achieve, and it is the most abiding of all. Hope resides in the meaning of what our lives have been."4

Assist the family. Whether death occurred in the home or the hospital, the pastor should invite family members to see the body before funeral home personnel arrive. The pastor should offer to accompany the whole family or individuals as they enter the room of the dead loved one. A medical person may explain what the family will see when they enter the room. Before entering the room, the pastor should ask the family if they want prayer to be offered while they are by the bed. This is important for some families, and the prayer often serves as closure to the viewing.

Often families prefer to be by the bedside without the pastor present. Last words and even confessions may be important keys to their success in grieving. Ask if the family wants to be alone. If an older person wants privacy, I let the person know that I will look in on him or her occasionally just to be sure he or she is all right, but that is merely a peek in the door, not entrance.

As I visit with the family, I look for individuals who need assistance. The person who is showing signs of anxiety draws my attention. A woman wringing her hands and repeating "Oh, my God" is burning up excessive energy and going nowhere. I quietly kneel beside her and say, "Jim was very important and so much a part of your life. Can you tell me about him?"

Children too need pastoral care in the early hours of a crisis. They are sometimes forgotten. They stand forlornly in the background. I go to them and ask their names if I don't already know them. I may say, "Your grandpa was very special to you, wasn't he? You did lots of fun things together. Can you tell me about some of those fun things?"

I watch for the people who are quiet and withdrawn. I try not to invade their space, but I want them to know that they are an important part of the family. I often place a hand on a shoulder and quietly say, "This is a very sad time for you and your family, isn't it?"

Some families are paralyzed with shock. They are not quick about notifying other family members or about making arrangements for a funeral. If death occurs in a hospital, the staff usually wants to know which funeral home to call. The pastor may assist the family in caring for these needs. The pastor may place the calls, but a family member should be encouraged to talk. Announcing the death to other family members and friends and talking to funeral home personnel help the family to look at reality.

Take time. Ministering to the family experiencing death takes lots of time. Never rush. Sharing, not performing, is the key to effective support. Admitting your own sorrow is always appropriate.

Before you leave, write down what the family can expect. This would include funeral arrangements, timing, personnel, housing for out-of-town visitors, church and graveside services, and arrangements for meals.

While crisis counselors have placed much importance on the value of early intervention, I would caution pastors not to place their full attention on the early hours. Under intense anxiety during loss, family relationships often shift from an open communication style to a closed style in order to protect against the pain and anxiety caused by open discussion. According to M. Bowen, simply helping the family express feelings at the time of crisis doesn't necessarily increase their level of emotional integration. Loss of a family member disturbs the equilibrium. Restoring that equilibrium depends, on the level of emotional integration versus the severity of the change caused by the crisis. The family's previous style of adaptation and their system of communication are also crucial to the way they react and regain equilibrium.5

The pastor and family grief patterns

F. Herz lists four major factors affecting the family grief reaction. The pastor cannot do anything about the first three: the timing of death, the cause of death, and the position of the person in the family. The pastor can do something about the fourth: the openness of the family system. The pastor can expand openness by using factual and open terminology and information, by establishing at least one open relationship with a person in the family that can promote openness in the rest. Help the family focus on hope for life and living instead of focusing solely on death. 6

During seven years of working in psychiatric units, I discovered that unresolved grief is a factor in 40 to 60 percent of the patients. We treated the patients, but did very little to determine the grief patterns of the family. Ester Shapiro is right: "Grief is at heart a family process, and it is within that process that the injury to an interdependent sense of self can best be understood and healed." 7

Establish family equilibrium. Pastors can help families to reestablish the family equilibrium by making individual, family, community, and sociocultural resources available. The greater the loss, the greater the need for resources to limit further upheaval and restore ongoing family development. By resources I do not mean books, although reading is a good resource. I mean people resources what Shapiro calls the "unflinching human presence."

Have support ministries. Churches can maintain a data base to keep track of families who suffer loss. These losses can be categorized by type---AIDS, accidents, cancer, etc. When a fresh loss occurs in the congregation, others who have suffered similar loss can forge a support group ministry. This should be an ongoing process. Memorial services can be held annually for all the families who have experienced loss during that year.

Pastors can schedule sermons and seminars on loss and healing. In larger churches newsletters and libraries can be established to provide resources for grief handling and recovery. Church programs can be developed and sustained to use when a family experiences a loss. Educating the entire congregation about the dynamics of grief will help members handle grief in their midst.

The pastor and long-term ministry

The belief that grief is an experience from which we can fully recover is a fallacy. Those who have experienced loss know that they do have subsequent temporary upsurges of grief brought about by memories over which they have not grieved. Pastors should expect to see this fallout of mourning for many years.

Failure to mourn for losses associated with death may complicate the lives of people for years. The pastor must be ready to support them when they come crashing into his or her study.

When the web of life-sustaining relationships is torn apart by death, the strong web of the religious community must be there to uphold the brokenhearted and to assist them in spinning a new web.

1. Eugene Kennedy, On Becoming a Counselor: A Basic Guide for Nonprofessional Counselors (New York: Continuum Publishing Corporation, 1980), p. 262.

2. Henri J. M. Nouwen, The Wounded Healer (Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday & Company, Inc., 1972), p. 72.

3. Kennedy, p. 42.

4. Sherwin B. Nuland, M.D., How We Die (New York: Vintage Books, 1993), p. 242.

5. M. Bowen, "Family Reaction to Death," in P. Guerin, ed., Family Therapy (New York: Gardner, 1976), pp. 335-348.

6. F. Herz, "The Impact of Death and Serious Illness on the Family Life Cycle," in E. Carter and M. McGoldrick, eds., The Family Life Cycle: A Framework for Family Therapy (New York: Gardner, 1989), pp. 223-240.

7. Ester R. Shapiro, Grief as a Family Process: A Developmental Approach to Clinical Practice (New York: Guilford Press, 1994), p. 10.



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Larry Yeagley, now retired, has served as a pastor and chaplain.  He lives in Gentry, Arkansas, United States.

February 1996

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