QUESTION: … my sweet awesome congregation is experiencing a whole lot of loss. In the past 2 years I have served here, we have lost upwards of 15 wives, husbands, fathers, mothers, grandmothers, and friends. Of course I am caring for the families individually, but I need to address the feeling of loss in the whole church. With an average of 80-100 in worship, 15 is a lot. Suggestions??
MY ANSWER: A little science will help; grief therapy is an established, well-researched methodology of helping people.
First, the genuine and true model of people working through grief, based on observation and experience, is the Four Tasks of Mourning by William Worden.
Give people good information about grief AS A SURVIVOR of the loss of a loved one.
https://whatsyourgrief.com/wordens-four-tasks-of-mourning/ (The graphic is from this location.)
Second, be careful about science that seems to fit but is twisted around. Specifically, be careful about the Kubler-Ross model which is based on emotional stages of terminally ill patients facing their own death. It is NOT applicable (although it seems to fit perfectly) to the grief experience of someone who has lost someone they love. People who have lost a loved one need to heal; they do not need to face or become trapped in a black hole of facing their own mortality, endlessly cycling from the death of their loved one and their own death. Be careful.
Third, people need people as they go through grief, but in measured doses. A grief program like GriefShare might be very helpful, but a group of widows going out for lunch after worship might have less intensity and be more comforting. Widows and widowers report that evening hours are hard to fill – consider providing opportunities for people to gather at their own speed.
Fourth, people need time. Allow people all the time they need. Grief is a healthy process, and there is healing if it is allowed to run its course. Emotional difficulties arise when we try to halt or hurry the process. The normal time for a process of grief over the loss of a spouse is two years to reach a “new normal.” Trauma or the loss of a child, etc., need longer times. Often survivors need to talk about their loved one, but the family shuts them down because “when we talk about Dad, mom starts to cry.” Holidays can be times when families avoid thinking or talking about the dead person as if they had never lived. Celebrate the person and go ahead and cry.
Churches can help with services like “Blue Christmas” or have a service of remembrance on All Saints Day or Memorial Day and ask people to bring photos to display in the sanctuary of the person they loved and still love. Pastors can be safe people to talk with about the person they lost through death when other family members are uncomfortable.
Five, be aware of other losses … the loss of mobility and physical health, loss of drivers license, loss of friends when graduating from high school and moving on to college, loss of a job, divorce, sexual abuse, violence, suicide of another, etc. There are all kinds of events that cause pain and are healed by healthy mourning.
Six, some people become frozen in their grief – it can be stuck for decades as they try to avoid the pain. Others try to avoid grief by becoming depressed, acting out or medicating grief with drugs or alcohol. Unprocessed grief can prevent other therapies for presenting problems from being successful. Often, therapists can find dealing with grief to be uncomfortable and difficult. But there are specialists who are certified in grief therapy, and as a pastor it would be useful for you to know someone to whom to refer special cases.
These words come from my experience of being formerly married to a certified grief therapist working in an inpatient treatment center.