Tyler was a responsible 15-year-old who worked on a ranch after school and on weekends. One morning he finished work and noticed that some cattle had gotten loose. He jumped on a dirt bike to bring them back. Attached to the bike’s handlebars was a revolver in a holster used for rattlesnakes. Unfortunately, the pistol was cocked, and as Tyler rode over the rough ground, the gun discharged. It was an unusual but fatal accident. I arrived at the police station to find the parents in shock. We cried together, something we would do again and again in the coming days.
The day following Tyler’s death, I visited the family. It was breakfast time. What could I say to take away their pain? Nothing. After breakfast, Tyler’s father and I walked along the fence line where Tyler’s prize-winning sheep were grazing. After a few steps, Tyler’s father turned and hugged me. We exchanged no words. We simply shared the pain. I was a physical presence to hold on to when the solid ground was collapsing.
This is the world of pastoral care, so often dealing with death. But I have discovered that pastoral care in the time of death is not about the dead; it is about the living.
The Vietnam War
I began my pastoral internship in the late 1960s. My first funeral was the result of a car accident. Shortly after the senior pastor had left, the local funeral home asked if I would take the service for a young husband. It was the first time I knocked on a door where death had occurred—the first of many.
My second funeral came soon after. The funeral director told me I would have to put aside the whole day because the cemetery was 40 miles out of town—“where cattlemen and sheepherders are buried.” He said the deceased was the last of the Basque sheepherders. I thought to myself, Welcome to Wyoming.
What do you say to six cowboys who were rounded up (pun intended) to be pallbearers? The ranchers arrived at the funeral home after a stop at the local tavern. They passed by old Chaco’s body to pay their respects and took their places in the front row of the chapel with their Stetsons below their chairs.
“Make it short and simple,” I whispered to myself. I read Psalm 23 and said a few words about Chaco. After the Lord’s Prayer, I gave the benediction. The pallbearers rose and carried the casket to the hearse. I joined the funeral director in the limousine for the 40-mile ride to the graveyard. As we waited for Chaco’s grave to be hand dug, a cowboy sidled up to me. “Reverend,” he said, “that was one of the best services I’ve been to.”
And then there were the Vietnam War funerals. The 1960s were fearful years for families with children in the military. Deaths were announced by two officers who came to the home. The casualties were most often young men in their early twenties. Each death was traumatic. One, in particular, was more difficult because of the circumstances of the soldier’s death.
On this occasion, the funeral director explained why the casket could not be opened. The young man’s body had been badly burned. Most of the family understood the reason for a sealed casket, but the soldier’s mother could not. She insisted on seeing her son. We finally convinced her that it would be better if she remembered her son as he was when he left home, and the service proceeded with a closed coffin.
During the three months following my supervising pastor’s departure, I presided at eight funerals overall, many of them military. This early experience was like watching my grandmother embroidering a tablecloth. She would follow a pattern printed on the fabric and use colored thread to bring the design to life. These experiences were the pattern that my ministry would take in the future.
After three months, I was emotionally ready for the next pastor to arrive.
Every crisis is different. Each family’s grief is its own. Family members grieve in their own way because each individual has a unique relationship with the deceased. These truths are noticeable when visiting the family’s home. The quiet presence of the pastor in the room is a living metaphor for a higher presence. If he or she is a good listener, it can pave the way for future visits.
When asked to do a memorial service for an unchurched family, I request a visit to their home. “It is an important time for you and your family,” I tell them. “I would like to know more about you and hear your story.”
In one case, the young woman I met at the funeral home had lost her husband of just three years in a snowmobile accident. After the preliminaries, I asked if I could come to her home the next day. The initial visit brought an invitation to dinner the next evening to meet her husband’s best friend. These visits opened the way for extended ministry in the following weeks.
Home visits give permission to each person to tell their story and begin the healing process. It is also an opportunity to talk about the grieving process. We cannot change the circumstances, but we can give comfort. What else, really, can we do?
Educating for the end of life
As pastors, have we done a good job of preparing people for the end of life? We seem to be more comfortable talking about the new heavens and the new earth than we are about death. It is certainly easier to use common clichés than to hold our tongues and acknowledge what has happened.
Perhaps you have heard some of these: “Aren’t you glad that you have another son?” Or “God had a reason for this; we just can’t see it now.” These attempts at comforting are not helpful. It is often best to say nothing at all. Too often, we want to provide answers that make no sense to the grieving person. The person who has lost a spouse of 60 years is screaming inside. Our role as pastors is not to provide pat answers but to listen to the heart that suffers and then suffer with that person. That is the meaning of compassion. By this, we acknowledge what has happened. Only then can healing begin.
We can read books from experts and glean what is helpful, but most often, a person’s own life experience will dictate how one handles the loss of a loved one. Most will find it difficult to believe the person whom they have lived with is really gone. How often I have heard someone say: “I keep waiting for him to come through that door.” In the end, we find that the grieving process is something we must go through, not around, if healing is to take place.1
One time there was a murder-suicide—the first time I had to deal with more than one death. The couple was known and loved. The incident affected their families, friends, neighbors, and business associates. Before their divorce, they were known as a happily married couple. How could this happen? What the people in this bewildered and grieving town needed was one another’s support. Friends and neighbors came together in a large auditorium to recognize what had happened. They grieved and shared a common experience of loss.
A murder-suicide is a special case, of course. But every death is unique for those who experience it. Some deaths are more difficult than others for pastors. The death of a child or young adult usually sends ripples of pain wider than the death of an elderly person who has lived a long life. The death of a student can affect an entire school body.
When called to the home of a 14-year-old middle-school student, I braced myself for the deep grief I would encounter. The young boy had shot himself while on the phone with a friend. The details need not be told here, but the father and stepmother became concerned about their son’s classmates. In preparing for the community memorial service, they asked me to bring a message to the boy’s friends: “Please tell them this is not the way to deal with their feelings. Tell them, if they find themselves in a desperate situation, to seek the help of a friend, parent, pastor, teacher, or coach.” The message, of course, was delivered.
No rule book
How does a pastor or caregiver best serve those in crisis? The emotions of those who grieve are deep and cannot be explained away. There is no rule book that can tell us to follow rules one, two, and three. We walk into the unknown. But we can still follow some principles to help the living grieve their dead.
First, as you walk into the situation, let the circumstances dictate what comes next. Be the calming presence. Avoid easy answers because there are none. Pray with the family and, if they are believers, talk about the hope we have in Jesus, the certainty of the resurrection, and the promise that “the last enemy that will be destroyed is death” (1 Cor. 15:26, NKJV). Be an active listener—that is what is needed. Provide continued support and pastoral care after the memorial service.
Pastors are not called to solve the unsolvable. Perhaps the best we can do is follow the apostle’s words: “Rejoice with those who rejoice, and weep with those who weep” (Rom. 12:15, NKJV).
The dead are dead; there is nothing we, as pastors, can do for them. Our job is with the living.
- See American Hospice Foundation, “My Story Grief Resource," Adventist Chaplains, accessed February 20, 2023, https://www.adventistchaplains.org/wp-content/uploads/2019/08/My_Story_Grief_Resource_TAC_1_2015_Fillable.pdf.