Written by Madge Ford
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Loss is an experience we all share. For some it may be the ultimate loss of a loved one through death - a bereavement.
Loss of any kind produces grief, in varying intensity depending on the significance of what has been lost. Grief is a normal emotional response to the experience of being bereaved. It is part of the cost of loving and then losing. Jesus said, 'Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted' (Matt 5:4). It is only as we mourn and grieve that we can truly and fully experience the comfort God would offer us.
However, being a Christian, with access to the comfort and truth of God's Word, does not render us immune to the hurt and bewilderment that bereavement can inflict. Bereavement often produces feelings and reactions which may seem strange and frightening. But given time and support, most people are able to cope with them and work through the process of grieving.
Sometimes Christians have unwittingly discouraged others from expressing their very normal feelings of grief and loss. Perhaps we accept too readily the view, 'She is a Christian so she will soon get over her grief.' In an attempt to be positive and helpful we quote Scripture verses like 'Blessed are the dead who die in the Lord' (Rev 14:13), or 'With Christ which is far better' (Phil 1:23). These can be of immense comfort at the right time. But that is the key issue: When is the right time? To be able to judge that, it is important to be aware of at least two things.
First, what is the family situation of the person who has been bereaved? Do we know what are the circumstances of their loss? Have we sufficient understanding and awareness of their need and culture, which will inform the way we express our care and support? If they are believers they can accept that their loved one is blessed, but they are hurting so much at the severance of the relationship that they may be unable to hear words of comfort, even from Scripture.
Second, bereavement inevitably introduces a period of transition in the life of the bereaved person. This time of change offers them the opportunity to reflect on the relationship which has ended, and to review and consider the past and the future. It is a time to mourn the one who has died. With a supportive person alongside they can be enabled to explore their feelings, thoughts and memories. It is intended to be a healing and recovery period, and can last, even in normal grief, for as much as two to four years.
While the most natural bereavement support system may be that of family and friends, there are times when additional help and support is needed. Sometimes family members are just too close to the situation. Also friends, desperately wanting to help, may try to make things 'better' too soon. There is now a greater awareness of the value of bereavement counselling and the need for it in today’s fractured and hurting world.
Many statutory and voluntary agencies offer bereavement counselling training and also offer a counselling service. In many churches people have undergone training and then put it to good use in their church and community. Bereavement counselling training gives the skills which enable one to deal with many aspects of grief. It provides a very helpful preparation for those who care pastorally for others both in and outside of the church. Also in our multicultural society today it is essential that we have some understanding of how those in other cultures deal with their grief.
Understanding the grief process
This process entails a series of responses, or 'stages of grief'. It involves a sense of shock, followed by a painful awareness of reality of our loss, which, if unhindered, leads to acceptance and emotional healing. The desired outcome at the end of this process is a readjustment to life without the loved one, a looking forward acknowledging that, although much has changed, there is still a life to be lived.
These 'stages of grief ' do not necessarily follow one another in a specific order. They often overlap and are not always clearly defined. To work through them requires time and effort, which for the bereaved person can prove unexpectedly demanding and exhausting.
This is perhaps the most obvious initial response, and is often seen before and during the funeral. It is the mind's way of coping with the horror and pain of the loss, a closing down of our ability to face what is happening. This sense of numbness and shock protects the bereaved person from feeling the impact and significance of the loss. They are thus enabled to carry on and get through the formalities of and preparations for the funeral. It may last beyond these early weeks, and can persist even for months, particularly following a sudden or unexpected traumatic death.
As shock gives way to the reality that the loved one has died, the acute pain and finality of the loss begin to be felt. 'The loss of a loved person is one of the most intensely painful experiences any human being can suffer', writes J Bowlby (Attachment and Loss, vol. 3, p. 7).
People cope with this pain in varied ways; perhaps by unconscious denial, e.g. by continuing to set a place at the dining table for the one who has died, or by delaying decisions about the dispersal of their personal effects. For the Christian there is also the risk of retreating into a super-spirituality which refuses to face the pain of the loss. Often there are feelings of guilt, anger and resentment towards the deceased which are felt to be unworthy and must somehow be denied. These feelings can then lead to depression, a not uncommon response in grief. Some have a need to idealise the dead person and refuse to allow a negative thought or comment to be made. Others speak of restlessness and lack of concentration. This, together with feelings of deep sadness and loss, coupled with a fear of breaking down in tears, may make it impossible for the bereaved person even to sit through a church service.
As time passes and the reality of the loss is faced, a new phase of grieving begins. Memories of the loved one become more realistic. The negative as well as the positive elements of the relationship and of the person begin to be acknowledged. There is a gradual 'letting go' of the person, perhaps by saying goodbye to any clothes or personal effects which may still be around. For many the recognition of acceptance begins when they experience satisfaction and a sense of achievement in learning new skills.
A widow struggled through her first year of grief with feelings of dismay and frustration at being so suddenly left unprepared for widowhood. In his wish to protect her, her husband had always handled financial matters and also actively dissuaded her from learning to drive. With the help of her counsellor she worked through these and many other issues. As the first anniversary drew near she decided, at the age of 61, to take driving lessons. She passed her test first time and bought her first car. She realised she had taken a huge step towards independence, and had begun to accept her new status.
Acceptance leads into the fourth and last stage of the grief process:
Recovery and readjustment are indications that mourning is moving towards a conclusion. Life begins to beckon again, and there is a new sense of hope and expectation. It is a significant moment when the bereaved person is able to look beyond their grief, and begin to invest emotional energy into other aspects of life and relationships. The loved one is not forgotten, but the pain recedes, the intense feelings diminish. It does not mean that grief is forever ended, but rather that the loss is no longer the primary focus of life. However, on special occasions, or significant anniversaries, painful memories may be reawakened which elicit those pangs of longing for all that has been lost. These feelings are usually temporary and, once acknowledged, do not inhibit the move towards a new independence and freedom.
Helping the bereaved person
Sometimes we feel inadequate or fearful of upsetting the one who is mourning. We may feel quite helpless in the face of their loss. It is often painful to share another person's grief, but our loving, caring presence is a priceless gift they will deeply appreciate and value. As friends and relatives become absorbed in their own lives again, the bereaved can feel isolated and abandoned within a few weeks of the funeral.
So keep in regular touch with them. Don't assume they prefer to be alone. They may, but give them the choice. In her contribution to Facing Bereavement (p.50), Elizabeth Boot speaks of her wish for visits from Christian friends, and her sense of shock when one of them said, 'We felt you needed to be left alone.' She comments, 'How did he know what we felt or needed?' Job expressed it well when he said that his brothers, friends, guests and servants had all forgotten and alienated him (Job 19:13-15).
While talking helps the person come to grips with the fact and reality of their loss, good listening facilitates the expression of their grief. They will want to talk about the one who has died, reviewing memories and events over and over again. This is not the time to share our experience of loss and how we have coped in a similar situation. It is their time. While we are with them we put our own concerns and worries to one side. By our attentive attitude and body language, we allow them to see that we are not in a hurry. If we know we can only be with them for a brief moment, it is kinder to say so and arrange for a longer visit another time.
We don't interrupt their outpourings of grief, nor do we offer solutions or advice. If there is a silence it can be more helpful to allow it, rather than rush to fill it by asking questions. Allow the tears to flow without endeavouring to stem them. Listen for the feelings behind the words - feelings of guilt, anger, disappointment, depression. Throughout, listen to God. Pray for the prompting of his Spirit to know when to intervene with the comfort of his Word, and when to hold back. It may not be the moment to quote a verse from the Scriptures.
Should our approach be different when we are listening to someone who does not share our faith, or whose loved one has lived a life without God? Not necessarily so. We express our shared humanity and respect for them as individuals as we acknowledge the commonality of grief. However, we may have to adjust our approach and take more care before offering overtly Christian answers or Bible texts, or suggesting a prayer. In our eagerness to help, beware of manipulating the experience of grief in order to bring them to faith. C S Lewis wisely wrote after being bereaved: ‘Don’t come talking to me about the consolations of religion or I shall suspect you don't understand' (A Grief Observed, p.23).
In such a situation it is even more important that we follow closely the bereaved person in their thinking, and in reflecting together on their feelings. We will sense when it may be right to ask if they would like us to pray or read a Scripture, but often this will only be after some of the doubts about where the deceased has gone have been discussed. This is the moment to stay with their questions and doubts, and to ensure that we are answering only what is being asked.
We know that death is the end of the earthly body, but not the end of the person who has died. But it is not for us to say where their loved one is, unless of course we know that they became a Christian before they died. In our compassion and concern to share Jesus, and the 'certain hope' that we have, it may be tempting to divert the discussion to issues of faith. The appropriate time may come when the bereaved will want us to talk about faith, but it has to be in their time and on their terms. It is essential to be honest and admit when we do not have the answers, balancing this with our experience of faith in a God of love who, knowing all things, always does what is right (Gen 18:25). He is merciful and forgiving, and can be trusted not to judge harshly.
There is no short-cut through this pain. For the bereaved Christian it can be a particularly tough time. They know the Scriptures, but their deep feelings of loss, perhaps anger and fear, may seem to deny those Scriptures. A Christian widow exclaimed: 'How can I be angry? He was an active Christian with a strong faith. He is much better off.' She was finding it hard to acknowledge that she let down and abandoned. She had been left with many worries and concerns, and in reality was fearful and deeply angry.
It takes courage to grieve, and not be afraid to ask questions of God. It also requires courage to become vulnerable by admitting and sharing questions and feelings that are often inexplicable and disconcerting. For some it may feel that God has abandoned them and they are losing their faith. They may feel angry with God, and yet horrified to admit it. In these moments it can be immensely reassuring to have the non-judgmental, empathic support of another Christian.
During the months following the death of a loved one there may be signs that resolution is not taking place. The depression may persist and deepen. The bereaved person may repeatedly break down in tears, but be unable to say why. They may never talk about the deceased or share memories or anecdotes. In some cases the room of the deceased is left as it was prior to their death, becoming almost a shrine to their memory. In others they remove photographs or anything personal that would be a reminder.
Unresolved grief may lie dormant for years, often until another significant death takes place. A lorry driver, whose elderly mother had died some months earlier, was referred to a counsellor by his doctor. The patient complained of a phobia related to driving his lorry over bridges. Approaching the bridge caused him physical symptoms, intense stress and anxiety. In counselling it emerged that his father had died suddenly from a heart attack while driving over a bridge. The patient was now the same age as his father had been when he died. During the sessions he was enabled to grieve for his father, acknowledging that, as a teenager, in the shock and pain of this sudden and unacceptable loss, he had pushed the feelings away and never grieved.
Grief may be unresolved, delayed or become complicated for many reasons. The following are some examples:
- when the cause of death is unknown;
- if there is no body to which to say goodbye;
- if the person committed suicide;
- if the death has resulted in litigation;
- when the loss is due to an abortion, miscarriage or stillbirth.
In all of these losses grief can be a particularly difficult and prolonged journey.
This is also true in the case of Sudden Infant Death Syndrome (SIDS or ‘cot death’.) The loss of a baby, however it happens, is traumatic and often emotionally disabling. More so when it is not clear why the infant has died. The parents may blame themselves, feeling they have failed in caring for their baby. They may have to face questioning by the police, which adds to their sense of unreality and shock. It is unlikely that the couple will travel the road of grief at the same pace, which can place a strain on their relationship and add to their confusion. With a wish to protect each other from the pain of their own grief, one or other may withdraw into themselves, believing they will upset their spouse by sharing how they feel.
Supporting parents whose baby or child has died calls upon all the skill and sensitivity we possess. The parents may be ambivalent about the level of support they would like, sometimes wanting to be left alone and at other times wondering why no one has been in touch. It is better to err towards a regular pattern of visits or telephone calls, checking with the couple what they would prefer. As in all grief we need to give thought to the words we use to offer comfort. It is not helpful to suggest 'Baby is now in a better place' or ‘Jesus doesn’t only want older people in heaven'. Some parents have been told: ‘It’s good you have other children. They need you', or ‘You will soon have another one who will take his place'. We tend to use these phrases because we are unsure what to say, not realising how hurtful and unacceptable they are. Often a sympathetic touch of the hand and a whispered 'I'm so sorry' is sufficient at that moment to ease some of their pain.
In caring for the parents the other children in the family will also be enabled to grieve. It is natural to want to protect them, but in doing so we may deprive them of the opportunity to experience grief appropriately, and at the right time. ‘A child can live through anything, so long as he or she is told the truth and is allowed to share with loved ones the natural feelings people have’ (Eda LeShan, The Courage To Grieve, p.8).
If we are aware that we do not have within the church fellowship anyone with sufficient skills and resources to accompany someone on their journey through grief, it is wise to seek an alternative. The ability to recognise and acknowledge this is an important step in helping the bereaved person. It may mean suggesting a visit to their doctor, or exploring with them what resources are available locally. Bereavement support groups organised by local voluntary agencies can provide the opportunity for those in grief to share together support each other.
Bereavement and loss are an integral part of being human, but for the Christian they have a dimension that offers hope and reality beyond this life. The goodbye is not forever. Therefore the pastoral care of those who grieve includes nurturing their faith in a God who comforts. To move forward creatively into a future where the comfort they have received may be used to comfort others (2 Cor 1:3,4) adds purpose and meaning to their pain and loss. For all who grieve we look for that moment when they experience the reality of God's promise: 'I will turn their mourning into joy, I will comfort them, and give them gladness for sorrow` (Jer 31:13).
Originally published in Partnership’s Church Leaders Handbook, ed.Harold Rowdon (Paternoster, 2002), and reprinted by kind permission.
© Madge Ford 2002.
D J Atkinson and D Field (eds.), New Dictionary
of Christian Ethics and Theology
E Collick, Through Grief — the Bereavement Journey
J Goodall, Children and Grieving
M Heegaard, When Someone Very Special Dies (Children's Workbook)
C S Lewis, A Grief Observed
C M Parkes, Bereavement
J Tatelbaum, The Courage to Grieve
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A Warren (ed.), Facing Bereavement
Where to find help
Care for the Family’s website, www.careforthefamily.org.uk, has a section (titled `Living with Loss`) for bereaved parents, bereaved partners, and with details of bereavement support organizations; also sections on miscarriage and infertility; tel 029 2081 0800
National Association of Bereavement Service (NABS), www.bereavement.info – a very helpful website on all aspects of bereavement
CRUSE Bereavement Service, 126 Sheen Road, Richmond, Surrey, TW9 1UR, tel 0845 758 5565 - for counselling, advice, social contact for the bereaved, and training; 180 branchesxand neerky 7000 volunteers
The Stillbirth & Neonatal Death Society (SANDS), www.uk-sands.org, tel 020 7436 5881
The Compassionate Friends, www.tcf.org.uk, tel 0845 123 2304 - a nationwide self-help organisation for parents whose children of any age have died
The Child Bereavement Centre, www.childbereavement.org.uk, tel 01494 568900 - for support for families, training and research.
Winston's Wish, www.winstonswish.org.uk, tel 08452 030405 - providing support for bereaved children and young people
Association of Christian Counsellors (ACC), www.acc-uk.org, tel 0845 124 9569 - for nationwide accreditation, information and directory of Christian counsellors, including bereavement counsellors.