Pastoring the grieving

Photo by Pavel Danilyuk on

I’m continuing a little series on the day to day work of a pastor and so today we want to think about what happens when a member of the church or one of their family dies.  What should you be doing.  We cannot be over prescriptive here because every family will have different needs and every pastor a different style but here are a few things to consider.

Often, I’ve found that the family appreciate a visit from their pastor on the day This is partly about offering immediate spiritual support to pray with them.  However, there may also be practical support and help that they need on the day and then in the weeks following.  At times like this, you are first and foremost a part of the extended spiritual family and there to support in whatever way you can, rolling your sleeves up and getting stuck in to what needs doing with the family. 

This may include helping with making and fielding phone calls. Sharing the load and helping to shield them from being overwhelmed.  Don’t take over but do offer to help.  Then, they may appreciate some help with beginning to sort out the more practical aspects of what needs to happen, having an external person to talk them through the process and help them get things organised.  Remember that even someone who is usually quite organised and even has plenty of experience of supporting others through such a time is likely to be hit for six and suffer grief-brain-fog.

You may also be needing to start to think about longer term implications, especially when a widow or widower is left behind and immediate family live a distance away. What kind of support, practical and emotional might they appreciate?  This may also include helping a family not to panic, to slow them down before they make rushed big decisions about things like moves etc.

Those early days after a bereavement are important because its when longer term memories are beginning to shape.  I think that what we talk about after a death is important. Those immediate memories and conversations may dominate.  In the immediate aftermath, there will be a lot of thinking and talking about the circumstances of the death itself, especially if sudden and traumatic.  On a side note, it’s worth being alert to how this affects the grieving mentally and physically.  I noticed when we were visiting my mum in ICU a display board in the reception that talked about how relatives can experience depression, anxiety and even PTSD following spending time with a loved one in intensive care.

But we also want to bring back and keep fresh those fond memories and anecdotes.  Grief rightly includes tears and sadness but there will also be laughter at funny memories and smiles at happy ones too, even if those are smiles through the tears, even if together we “trace the rainbow through the rain.” 

And, in that context, begin to talk about the funeral.  I don’t think it’s ever too soon to talk about this and in some places you may find that there isn’t much time to put things together.  Indeed, there’s a great benefit  when the deceased had already begun to plan for their funeral.  Again, this will include practical things like putting them in touch with a good funeral director who will treat them with kindness and the deceased with respect (yes, some are better than others).  Do they know whether their loved one wanted to be buried or cremated?  If not they may need some help with that kind of decision. 

Grieve with them.  This will be especially so, when the deceased was part of the church family but even when not you can share the sorrow of friends.  Model what it means to be those who mourn but not without hope.

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