6 Ways for Congregations to Care for Grieving Families

Last week clergy did all that they could to proclaim the greatest mystery of Christian faith. They preached with all that they had in them. They led beautiful, inspiring liturgies throughout the weekend — some did so all week long. They proclaimed a faith that they might not have been feeling themselves, but they did it anyway. They dared to make the impossible feel possible for their congregations and themselves.

angels-458341_1280This week, after the brunches, egg hunts and brass, they are tired. They are so very tired because it’s hard to practice self care during Holy Week. It’s hard to find that perfect balance where every ordinary detail gets covered as well as the extra demands of Holy Week. And this week is no better. Easter is over but the busyness hasn’t yet subsided. Pastors are tired. So tired. They would like nothing better than to binge watch episodes of Call the Midwife or the last few episodes of Mad Men. They would love to lounge on the couch all afternoon but members of their church are dying. My Facebook feed is full of clergy expressing their grief over the recent deaths in their congregations. There is some dismay in those posts on social media too. Because it isn’t just one member of the congregation that has died. There are two or three.

It’s hard for the church. It’s hard for the pastor. It’s just hard. Recognizing this, here are a few things that congregations can do to support each other when death comes.

1. Recognize that every family has different needs. Every family has a different experience of death and loss. Each person within that family responds different than the next. Some will want to talk about their loved one and their feelings. Others will want to hide. You may or may not think that the family is doing it the “right way” but please do everything you can to recognize that there is no right way. What honors the grief of one family will not work for the next.

2. Get busy in the kitchen. It is only natural after recognizing that each family has different needs to ask what they need. It seems like the right thing to do. But most families haven’t a clue what they need or want — so it’s best not to ask. Instead, get busy in the kitchen making something that can be easily stowed in the freezer for the family to enjoy in the days to come. My last congregation loved to hand deliver lasagna purchased from Costco. It works if you’re short on time — but I still think that there is something special about something homemade. Deliver it to their home, but don’t expect to talk much to the grieving.

If you have a knack for reception style catering or have been blessed with baking skills, call your pastor to inquire about the family’s plans for the reception following the memorial service. Some churches have women’s groups (and rarely men’s groups) that provide this particular hospitality. But, as those groups are disappearing, this very special care for grieving families falls to a local catering company. This is wonderful for supporting local businesses but we can do better. The early Christians were known for how they took care of each other in the most difficult times — and food is one of the best ways to do that. So, get busy making those veggie platters and finger foods. Bake some cookies filled with chocolatey morsels of love. Bring them on the day of the memorial service to the church — and maybe even offer to host. The family will be so moved by the love of your church family by this gesture alone.

3. Comfort the mourning. There was a widow in my last congregation who reminded me nearly every week how much and how long grief lingers. As a child of grief myself, it was something I knew and should have been more conscious of in my ministry. And my own life. But, I wasn’t. It was she that made me realize this because she wasn’t afraid to say that it still hurts. Her husband died two years ago — and for most members of the congregation, it was old news. She had received the message from more than one person that she should “just get over it already.” Of course, no one had ever been so blunt. It was something they said by omission. They had stopped asking how she was. It only took six months for this to happen — and she still isn’t over it. She is still hurting.

When someone dies in your congregation, make a special effort to comfort the mourning. Look around and be aware of those that have lost a spouse, a child or a sibling. Blessed are those who mourn, Jesus tells us. Be part of their comfort by sending a card like one of these or simply saying in coffee hour, “I’ve been thinking about you. How are you?”

4. Proclaim the good news. Christ is risen! You proclaimed this truth on Easter Sunday. Now it’s Friday again and it seems like Barbara Johnson is right: we are Easter people living in a Good Friday world. Death has come to your church family so that it seems that it’s just back to normal.

Don’t believe it. When Mary and the disciples went to the tomb, they were told to tell everyone what they had seen. You might not see those signs so clearly — but you have probably seen something amazing in this person that has died. Tell that story. Keep telling that story to everyone in your church and beyond. In this storytelling, Mary and the disciples saw the Risen Lord. They saw what work needed to be continued by their own hearts and hands. They started baptizing and healing. They taught and preached. They made disciples as they allowed themselves to be taught by the stories they told. Proclaim the good news.

5. Pray for your church familySomeone in your family has died. It may not have been someone that you knew very well or it may have been someone that everyone knew because he served on every committee there was. This person was a part of your church family. Offer prayers for his family and friends — but offer prayers especially for your church. Because there is no “right way” to grieve for any one person or a whole community. As it says in the United Church of Christ liturgy,

We humbly acknowledge that death is no stranger to your people, for it comes to us all, the strong and the ill, rich and poor, the proud and the humble. But to us, death may come as an intruder or a welcome friend, leaving us with confused and mixed feelings.

Help us to see in this ending, new beginnings as well, and remind us that you are always bringing light out of our darkness, and new life even out of death.

Only God knows where that beginning will emerge. It’s not for any of us to predict — but as people of the resurrection, as Easter people living in a Good Friday world, we believe that there will be new life and light. As you wait to see it, pray for your church family’s confused and mixed feelings.

6. Pray for your pastor. My favorite part of ministry is this particular work. I love walking with families through the grief process and writing liturgy for memorial services and funerals, but few pastors love it as much as I do. Your pastor may be carrying her own grief. She may be among the mourning and be struggling to write the liturgy for this memorial service. Or she might just be tired after all of the stuff surrounding Easter. Pray for her strength, her wisdom and her compassion.

Good Friday Reads

Last night, in a darkened sanctuary, I was called to worship with these words: On this day Christ the Lamb of God gave himself into the hand of those who would slay him.

To this, the people were meant to reply:

We walk with his family, his friends and disciples
who gathered in the upper room
and watched him die for our salvation.

But, I couldn’t speak these words. I couldn’t find it within myself to voice this prayer because that’s not what brought me to that darkened sanctuary. I wasn’t there to memorialize his death. I was there to remember his love — to remember that commandment that gave us. To take into my body with bread and juice. Maybe even get down on my hands and knees and wash a stranger’s feet. But, love wasn’t the focus. Instead of talking about love, instead of taking that love into our bodies, there was talk of sacrifice. For some, I know, it is the same.

Sacrifice is what Christ does. It’s what happens on the cross. He gives his life for the love of this world. His sacrifice is the ultimate way Christ reveals his love. I’ve heard this said many times — but I am not so sure I understand how and why Christ died.

I’m not sure that I ever will.

Because I don’t understand death. I’ll never understand death. I’ve spent the better part of 30 years trying to understand how my mother died and I still don’t know. I have no idea why she died. Explanations have been offered to me. There’s no shortage of that. I’ve been told all sorts of things to make sense of what doesn’t make sense. But, there is no answer. There is no way to explain someone so young and so loved could die.

And I believe the same is true for my Lord and Savior.

So, I won’t go to worship today. I didn’t go. I had planned to attend the traditional three-hour thing at a nearby church with the last words and meditations. But, instead, I chose my coffee and a book. This Good Friday, I decided to read Tony Jones’ A Better Atonement: Beyond the Depraved Doctrine of Original Sin.

Though I’m still not sure exactly what atonement theory the author has chosen as “better” amid all of the theological possibilities he outlines, I appreciated his certain faith that “God cannot be bound by a law, a moral code, a universal sense of justice, or a ‘deep magic from the dawn of time.'” There is a clear sense that there must be something better than our human arguments.  I like that. Because I want my God to be bigger than whatever humanity is defining as sin.

What I found most helpful in my Good Friday reading meditation was found in his caveat, where the author asserts:

It must be noted, and noted in bold, that the atonement is not, nor ever has been a topic of Christian orthodoxy. That is to say, no historic creed of the church deals with the atonement, and none of the seven ecumenical councils took up the question of the atonement.

The early church never bothered with this topic. It became a concern. Things changed. Time went on. People bothered with atonement. Some time in the Middle Ages — at least according to this author — it became a matter of concern as the people of God tried to understand divine justice. And we’ve never stopped taking up this question. We are still trying to understand how and why death comes.

And we may never know.

Hope Within Me

hopeFrom far too many pulpits, there isn’t a word said about how long and how hard grief can be. I don’t know why this is. I don’t know if it’s a hallmark of our society or the stubbornness of a particular kind of Christianity that denies the depth of agony that begins on cross and continues in the darkness of the tomb. Perhaps it’s neither of these things. Perhaps it’s both. I don’t really care. Because it doesn’t really matter.

What does matter is the tears that glisten on the faces of those special and rare people. What does matter is that they heard the good news that didn’t insist on the challenges of Easter Sunday. They heard it from their own story. They heard that their pain, their grief and their inexpressible groaning isn’t something to just get over already — but a way for them to see the promise of resurrection.

There is resurrection in those “sighs too deep for words.” Resurrection comes in the story of our faith after betrayal and doubt. It comes after piercing and suffocating death before it waits in the tomb. Resurrection, as someone famous once said, doesn’t come without Good Friday. It is not resurrection unless there has been some pretty horrible inexpressible groaning first. Because that always comes first. There wouldn’t be a story without the death. There wouldn’t be anything remarkable or heroic. It wouldn’t have caused anyone to wonder if Jesus hadn’t been dead and buried. Sounds like a downer, I guess. Maybe it is for those who have never felt that sting. But, my mom died when I was seven years old. This still stings. I am not over it. I may never be over it even though it seems that there is always someone who believes I should be.

Grief is what I know best so that when I sat down to write my morning pages this morning and read 1 Peter 3:8-18a, this verse leaped off of the page of my Bible:

Always be ready to make your defense to anyone who demands from you an accounting for the hope that is in you; yet do it with gentleness and reverence.

Because I believe I do have such an account. There is hope that is in me. There is hope in each of these rare and special people — even if doesn’t sound like triumphant joy. There is hope. I won’t get over my grief. It won’t vanish with the resurrections I might experience. It will always be part of the story. It will always be what happened first. It will always be the hope that is in me. It will always be what allows me to believe that there is resurrection. I’ll defend this hope. It is the hope that is within me.