How to help your congregation cope with grief
What do you teach when your congregation is grieving or suffering through a tragedy? What do you do when you or another church leader has just been diagnosed with cancer? How do you handle the overwhelming grief of losing a child within your congregation? How do you offer hope when you too are hurting?
Tragedy brings out a variety of emotions well beyond sadness. People who are suffering may express anger at themselves, at others, even at God. They may become despondent, and they may question or doubt everything, including their faith. These feelings may be difficult for them to express and difficult for you to understand.
In addition, the circumstances of a tragedy will affect how grief is processed. Dealing with loss from a natural disaster is very different than responding to violence. Coping with a loss involving children or helping children or youth cope with a crisis will be an even greater challenge. You may feel helpless, but you are not. While each situation is different, there are a variety of ways you can offer spiritual comfort and support during difficult times.
- Consider providing a service of healing, reminding participants that God does not promise the absence of suffering but God's presence throughout.
- Offer special prayers to minister with the dying and loved ones immediately following a death.
- Ask those who are terminally ill if they wish to partake in Holy Communion or reaffirm their Baptismal Covenant.
- If asked by the family, bless those who are grieving with an appropriate end-of-life service or funeral.
- Offer grief counseling to the extent that you feel capable. If the bereaved exhibit suicidal or self-harming tendencies or other mental health issues beyond your training, be willing to refer them to an appropriate professional.
Ministering to those who are experiencing the pain of death requires sensitivity. While there are common elements in grief, people recover from grief differently. Acknowledging the hurt and making your presence and prayers known is often more comfort than you might realize. Let your congregation, as well as grieving individuals, know that you are available and that you care.
- Don’t remain silent. Communicating in a crisis can be difficult, but it’s important to say something, even it’s to admit that you don’t know what to say.
- Recognize their pain; don’t try to diminish it or offer platitudes. You may even want to refresh yourself on grief care, things to say, and phrases to avoid.
- Pray and educate yourself as best as possible on the specific situation before meeting with the people who are hurting, but never act as if you have all the answers.
- Cautiously acknowledge your own emotions. Your congregation already knows you’re human. You don’t have to pretend to be otherwise. However, your grief should in no way detract or interfere with those who have been most affected by the loss.
- Don’t hide from taboo topics in the church. Being the bearer of bad news is never a pleasant task, but you need to speak from the pulpit about situations that affect the congregation as a whole. Follow these 10 steps to breaking bad news to your congregation.
- Encourage your congregation to draw strength from each other and to offer a helping hand with the physical needs (finances, transportation, childcare, meals, house cleaning and yard care) of those who are grieving.
- Be patient with those who feel broken by grief, and don’t forget about them after the initial crisis has passed. There is no one timetable for recovery; everyone takes a different amount of time to come to terms with loss.
- Listen to them talk about their loved ones or talk about what they have lost. Listen to them relive the story of their diagnosis, disaster or experience. It’s not always easy to listen, but it’s an important part of their recovery; they need someone to hear.
Grief is hard. There is no easy, one-size-fits-all answer on how to cope with it or comfort those who are grieving. But no matter how difficult the situation, the worst thing you can do is pretend that the pain isn’t there. In trying to avoid an uncomfortable situation, you can unintentionally make others feel ignored or rejected when they are most in need.
Here are some additional tips to avoid overlooking those in need.
Remember that you can’t (nor should you try to) make the hurt go away. You can’t take away the problem. You can’t bring back what they have lost.
Your role is to be there with them, to pray for them, and to remind them of John Wesley’s words, “The best of all is, God is with us.” The knowledge that God is with us, through the good and the bad, is, after all, the greatest comfort you can give.