Assisting parishioners through grief

Assisting parishioners through grief - Part one of a two-part series

What you say (or don't say) can make all the difference while ministering to grieving families.

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

As pastors, how often we feel totally helpless in assisting parishioners through grief. I remember the first time I was assigned a pastorate, substituting for its regular minister. Two weeks later a church member’s uncle died, and I was to do the funeral and comfort the family. I didn’t have the slightest idea how to proceed, but I reached for Andrew Blackwood’s book1 on funerals and speedily read the whole book. I prayed all the way to the home of the bereaved. When the funeral was over, the funeral director said, “Young man, if you need any advice on funerals and how to comfort the grieving, just drop by and we can chat.” I was crushed by embarrassment.

From that point on I began reading every new book on grief, and then I attended a five-week course on counseling at a nearby hospital. J. William Worden offered a weekend intensive class at the University of Chicago. He pushed all of us to practice grief counseling principles via role-playing. Therese A. Rando taught a day-long seminar at a Michigan hospice. I traveled to Washington, D.C., to attend the first national hospice convention where I was privileged to have a personal visit with Dr. Cicely Saunders, founder of St. Christopher’s Hospice in London. Every chance I had, I pushed myself to learn how to comfort those who mourn. I was determined that I would never again be embarrassed as I was at that first funeral service. With so many resources at my fingertips, most of them requiring a very little outlay of money, I had no excuse to remain incompetent at comforting those who hurt.

Pastors need to be competent in grief counseling because even though our society is filled with helpers of all stripes, most people turn first (and sometimes solely) to their pastor for help, often long before they would be willing to enter into other types of professional treatment or therapy.2

Pastoral competency depends not just on academic learning but also on knowing the parishioners. Pastoral visitation reveals many things about members that determine the nature of grief support. Pastors who say they don’t do pastoral visits are like doctors who treat patients without knowing their health history.

What is grief care?

First, let us understand what grief care is all about. Therese A. Rando describes grief care as a series of processes rather than tasks or outcomes. “As compared to tasks, they [grief care processes] offer the care giver more immediate feedback, the ability to intervene more quickly and appropriately, the specific targets for intervention, and improved assessment of the mourner’s current experience.”3

I have used Rando’s processes as a template over which I could place the current experience of a grieving person and thus determine their progress or the area where they are stuck. The following is a paraphrased version of Rando’s processes:

1. Admit that the loss happened and attempt to comprehend how it happened.

2. Allow the full experience of pain and talk about the major and secondary losses.

3. Think about the relationship and review memories both positive and negative.

4. Admit that the physical relationship can no longer be and write a new life script.

5. Allow yourself to have a relationship of memory.

6. Develop new plans that do not include the lost relationship.

You can quite easily assume that a person is adjusting to a loss quite well. All parishioners who lose a loved one should have frequent contacts with family and friends after the loss. After our 22-year-old son died in 1980, most of my work colleagues assumed that I was doing well because I had been conducting bereavement support groups for four years before his death. They didn’t see the conflicts that were churning within me. One day I was visiting a 22-year-old man as he lay dying in the intensive care unit. After he died, sorrow welled up in my heart, and tears swelled up, but I kept my composure until the young man died. I ran from the room and went outside and leaned against a pillar. The head nurse made no faulty assumptions but came to my side and blended her tears with mine. Yes, I looked much tougher, but she sensed my pain. That day she became a source of healing that enabled me to work effectively in the intensive care unit for years.

Listen! Listen! Listen!

When pastors ask me what I do for grieving people, I say, “Listen, listen, listen.” Listen without interrupting, giving advice, or trying to take away the pain. Pain mellows when experienced and expressed to a patient listener. Over the past 30 years I have listened to people expressing their sorrow without trying to fix the person speaking. Countless times they have responded by saying, “Thank you so much for listening to me. I guess I had to get it all out in the open. I feel better already.” Another common response is, “It’s so good to know that what I’m feeling is normal and that I’m not going crazy.” My response is, “Someone I read said that grief is craziness, but you’re not going crazy.”

Pastors should not try to defend God or answer the why questions of grieving parishioners. They don’t expect answers. They simply want to express their sorrow and anxiety.

I co-lectured with a professor of New Testament theology at an American Cancer Society convention. He said he almost canceled the speaking appointment because his wife died of cancer three months earlier. He spent those months trying to find out why this happened to him. He said, “I searched the Bible from cover to cover to find an answer to the why question, but I didn’t find an answer. If an answer is there, I should have been able to find it. I’m a professor of New Testament theology. I finally concluded that the Book was not written to answer that question. It was written to tell us how to get out of the mess we are in. But I came up with questions for which I found answers. Does God take my suffering seriously? If so, what has He done about it? What is He doing about it? What will He do about it? The Bible answers those questions, and the answers give me assurance.”

I think about my professor friend every time a grieving person sits in front of me and asks, “But why?” That person wants the freedom to ask that question without being judged or lectured.

Changing the focus

In early grief, many people focus almost exclusively on the illness, accident, or manner of death. They rehearse this many times. This process is important because this helps them to admit that their loss has really happened. There comes a point when they need to change the focus from the manner of loss and begin focusing on the relationship. The relationship should be revisited piece by piece, not all at once. They need to admit that each piece cannot be cared for at once. To write a farewell to each piece, speak a farewell, or act out a farewell can be very helpful. Over a period of time this exercise moves them from a relationship of presence to a relationship of memory. This process cannot be rushed. It takes time.

A woman in Texas acted out a farewell to sleeping with her husband. She said, “Last night I slept on my side of the bed. For six months I’ve been sleeping on his side of the bed. I don’t know if I smelled him on that side or what, but I know he won’t be there with me anymore. So I slept on my side.”

An elderly woman seated next to her said, “I said farewell to my husband taking care of the finances. This week I went to the bank and changed the names of the accounts. Now I’m learning to take care of the business.”

A young woman whose husband committed suicide said, “I said Goodbye on Sunday. We always picked up the Sunday paper from the porch, made a cup of coffee, and went back to bed to read the paper together. After breakfast we went to the botanical gardens and enjoyed the flowers together. On Sunday I told him he wasn’t there to do these things with me, but that was his choice. I read the paper in bed, had my breakfast, and then went to the gardens and enjoyed the roses. He isn’t going to be there anymore, but I’m going to go on enjoying life. I know I have finally found my feet.”

These three were moving through the process because they focused on the death or divorce, then changed their focus to the relationship that used to be but could no longer be. They were moving toward adjustment because they could talk without interruption or judgment.

Some people are helped by creating a memorial to their loved one. That’s why we see crosses and flowers along the highway where a death occurred. Donations are sometimes given to a memorial fund at the church. Pastors must counsel with the family about how they wish the money to be used.

I often hear people say to a grieving person, “It’s been over a year now. You should be over it.” But time cannot be considered the best indicator of adjustment. The most reliable indicator is movement. The movement can be large or ever so small, but movement shows reason to rejoice. A pastor looks for movement and affirms a person for progress. A pastor expresses hope that the movement will continue.


This article is part one of a two-part series:

1 Andrew W. Blackwood, The Funeral (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1942).

2 See William R. Miller and Kathleen A. Jackson, Practical Psychology for Pastors, 2nd ed. (Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall, 1995), 2.

3 Therese A. Rando, Treatment of Complicated Mourning (Champaign, IL: Research Press, 1993), 44.



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

March 2008

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