On January 9,1997, Tony DeMarco's world turned upside down. The Denver Post sportswriter received word that his wife, Maureen, 37, had died in a plane crash.
A chaplain from Detroit's Metropolitan Airport made the call informing DeMarco. Suddenly DeMarco had to deal not only with his grief but with the reality of abruptly becoming the single parent of his eightyear-old daughter. As soon as word of Maureen's death spread, an informal network of support for the DeMarcos emerged. Friends brought flowers and food, and people from all walks of life came to offer condolences. 1
Upon learning of a death, the broader community of family and friends must mobilize to form a circle of love and support. To surviving families, funerals are painful and tragic, but the pain and tragedy can be softened and eased by supporters. And it is the church pastors and parishioners who are called to the front lines of a grief ministry. God declares: "Comfort, comfort my people" (Isa. 40:1, NIV). Christians are to administer emotional and spiritual first aid when a family has experienced a death.
One important aspect of grief ministry is funeral home visits (or to say it in terms of a generic world culture: visit meaningfully with the bereaved family), which demonstrates for the bereaved that they are not alone in their suffering. Such visits constitute the beginning of an important bereavement ministry. Here are some guidelines when visiting the funeral home.
Amazingly, some choose not to visit the funeral home. Such persons may send a note or make a quick phone call, but they avoid the personal touch of being there. Death of a family member is one of life's most severe blows and one from which the bereaved can re cover only with the comfort and consolation extended by others through their caring presence. As soon as you hear of a death, plan to be at the funeral home. Whether the death was sudden or expected, that of a younger or older person be there. The greatest gift one can offer during such a difficult time is the gift of presence. By visiting the funeral home, you become a strong reminder that although mourners are experiencing a difficult loss they are not without love and support. Your presence is vital.
Consider Mary Anne's experience. She was preparing dinner when she received a phone call from police alerting her that Kenneth, her husband, had been in an automobile accident. Rushing to the hospital, Mary Anne was greeted by a nurse who gently told her that Kenneth had died. She recalls: "Al though I was in shock and quite numb during those first few days, I distinctly remember marveling at all the people who came to the funeral home. Not only family and friends but acquaintances, Kenneth's work colleagues, and children's schoolmates. So many people came to show support and share our grief. Even though some of them found it hard to be there, they were generous in letting me share my feelings. The funeral visitation left me feeling hopeful. Somehow the presence of so many people made the unbearable bearable."
The power of the ear
Listening is a powerful therapeutic tool for hurting people. Those who listen carefully and from the heart become instruments whereby light penetrates darkness, hope punctures despair, and clarity replaces confusion. Dr. Alan Wolfelt, director of the Center for Loss and Life Transition, says: "When a friend is grieving, listen with your heart. Helping begins with your ability to be an active listener. Your physical presence and desire to listen without judging are critical helping tools. Don't worry so much about what you will say. Just concentrate on listening to the words that are being shared with you.... Allow your friend to have his or her own feelings."2
The expressions of sympathy
Use words and sentences that convey tenderness and compassion. Mourners identify the following as especially helpful at a time of loss: I'm so sorry; Words fail me at a time like this; I want to share your grief any way I can; This must be very painful for you; I'm here because I care and want to help; You will all be in my prayers daily; I hurt for you.
Don't hesitate to use touch or an embrace to further convey your love and care but avoid empty cliches or trite expressions such as these: You've got to hold on; Don't cry; Everything will be all right; It was for the best; He's better off now; At least she's not suffering any more; You'll get over it; Time will take care of everything; Be brave and strong.
The dynamics of mourning
While most people engage in healthy and normal grieving patterns, some fall into the trap of complicating their bereavement. There are some pitfalls that people can unwittingly get into, particularly actions that limit or negate aspects of the funeral. Some individuals set themselves up for unhealthy, complicated bereavement by engaging in what Raoul L. Pinette calls "popular escape mechanisms." While we should always be deeply aware of the funeral customs and practices of the culture in which we minister, it is worthwhile noting Pinette's cautions as he states them in an article titled Acute Grief and the Funeral?3
The dosed casket. "What better way is there to run away from death than to have a closed casket and not look at the dead person at all.... The closed casket is a very convenient manner of with drawing into denial."
An exception to an open casket would be in the case of a death where the body has been extremely disfigured and impossible for an embalmer to properly reconstruct. In such cases, a closed casket maybe preferable because it protects survivors from being con fronted by a haunting and lasting visual image.
No visitation. Some mourners, and their well-meaning family and friends, feel that a funeral visitation time is an additional hardship survivors do not need. However, visitations play an important role in the recovery and adjustment phase of grief. Visiting gives relatives and friends opportunity to share their concern and also to feel and express their own grief. It is natural that joy shared becomes joy augmented and grief shared becomes grief diminished. There is nothing worse than going through a crisis alone.
Limited funerals. Some mourners and their families will insist on a "small, private funeral." This, too, should be gently challenged. Is it fair to dictate the number of people who should or should not grieve and how many should be accorded the privilege to express their grief through the funeral?
The resources of faith
Because bereavement can create intense emotional and spiritual darkness, the bereaved will need gentle reminders that they have not disappeared into the "valley of the shadow of death" but, as the psalmist majestically declares, they "walk through the valley of the shadow of death" (Ps. 23:4). The bereaved need assurance and reassurance that God is with them and is quietly guiding them from the darkness of grief into the light of recovery.
During the time of grief, grievers may need reminders that they have an invisible means of support. The bereaved can benefit from gentle suggestions that they are not completely alone with their pain; that no matter how abandoned they might feel, God shares their burden of sorrow. There are always biblical passages such as the following that can be shared: "As a mother comforts her child, so will I comfort you" (Isa. 66:13). "How good it is to sing praises to our God.... He heals the brokenhearted and binds up their wounds" (Ps. 147:1, 3). "Do not let your hearts be troubled. Trust in God; trust also in me" (John 14:1).
In his book, The Funeral and Mourners, Dr. Paul Irion stresses the importance of spiritual leaders sharing their personal faith, the "vital conviction that God is the loving Father who abides with his children in life and in death." "There is a contagious nature to faith in the God of mercy who understands the needs of his children and who accepts them in spite of their weakness."4 Of course, sharing your personal faith does not mean lecturing a mourner or delivering a mini-sermon but rather approaching bereavement ministry from your own deep confidence that God is actively present and lovingly engaged in the task of trans forming darkness and despair into light and new life.
Death is an inevitable part of life; thus, helping mourners is an inevitable aspect of ministry. All church members need, therefore, to learn how to take part in that ministry.
1 People (October 13, 1997).
2 Alan Wolfelt, quoted in What to Do
When a Loved One Dies: A Practical and
Compassionate Guide to Dealing With Death
on Life's Terms, by Eva Shaw (Dickens Press,
3 Raoul L. Pinette, "Acute Grief and
the Funeral," in For Those Bereaved. Austin
Kutscher, ed. (Arno Press, 1980), 23-25.
4 Paul Irion, The Funeral and the
Mourners (Nashville: Abingdon Press,