A Time to Mourn: Shepherding God's People Through Grief
Christian worship is based on the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. The apostle Paul says that Christ’s death and rising again must find its parallel in the life of believers: we must die to our old selves and rise to our new life in Christ (2 Tim. 2:11; Col. 3:1-5). He takes this one step further in 1 Corinthians 15:35-49, explaining that our very bodies are like seeds that must die and return to the earth before we can experience the resurrection of our new spiritual body. Spiritual truths suddenly become living (and dying) realities.
Church communities deal with life and death on a continual basis. Grief is commonplace among God’s people. That means our worship must mirror both the joys and sorrows of life. Just as worship is based on both the dying and rising of Christ, the dying of our old selves and the rising of our new life in Christ, so also worship must reflect our grief at death while still pressing forward in faith to the final resurrection in Christ.
Many churches read aloud a list of the members of the church who have died during the year on the first Sunday in November (All Saints’ Day) or on New Year’s Eve. They use this occasion to express their grief over the death of several more of God’s saints during the past year and to focus on the theme of dying and rising again. We’d like to suggest, however, that this rhythm of dying, grief, and assurance be a regular part of worship. Not only does this practice have a solid theological basis in Christ’s death and resurrection, it also represents our experience. Rare is the congregation in which some members are not wrestling with grief. Dealing regularly with this issue also prepares the entire congregation for their own inevitable times of grief.
Here are some suggestions for incorporating the realities of grief and bereavement in worship:
1. Use the time of confession not only to confess our particular sins but also to lament the effects of sin in the world.
These include all forms of loss and separation such as divorce, financial reversals, or alienation within friendship. But the ultimate effect of sin in this world is death and the grief that arises from it. Use litanies that not only confess our own sins (“We have not always honored your name . . .”) but also acknowledge the effect of sin in the world (“We are overwhelmed with sorrow caused by the death of our loved ones . . .”).
2. Be sensitive to the difficulty a grieving person may have in returning to the worshiping community
.Don’t expect a grieving person to follow a standard timetable for coming back to church. The experience of grief differs for everyone depending on the nature of the relationship and the survivor’s age, family situation, and so on. Although we often assume that grieving persons will find comfort within the church, we have found in our work with those who are grieving and in our own experience that this is not necessarily so. Returning to church was very difficult. Certain hymns or songs, Scripture passages, or even just the physical presence of the sanctuary often elicited raw emotion. People’s responses ranged from either being overly solicitous or ignoring us completely (probably due to their discomfort). And worship itself was often geared to joy, praise, and thanksgiving, which were far from our hearts at the time.
We need to recognize that grieving people face tough issues, including, for those who were married, being single again. Perhaps we can encourage them to sit by themselves during the worship service after they have been widowed. Once a grieving person feels ready to participate in the service, we can invite them to light a candle in memory of their loved one or to participate in the service of confession, lament, and assurance (see sidebar, p. 9), perhaps offering a personal testimony.
3. Use realistic and specific words and phrases rather than euphemisms and platitudes in prayers, announcements, and sermons.
Avoid using language that downplays the reality of death: passed on, lost, in a better place, isn’t with us any more, or gone. Choose words like dead, died, grief, sorrow that confront the reality of the death. Certainly we embrace the hope of the resurrection. But that hope does not remove us from the grief. Use precise language; name the pain clearly. Doing so facilitates the emotional acceptance of the death and underscores the reality that the person will not return. The aim is not to prevent the bereaved from crying but rather to use emotional expression as a part of the healing process. Death is so emotionally traumatic that it caused Jesus himself to weep (John 11:35) even though he would immediately exercise his divine power over death.
4. Do not assume that a bereaved person will maintain former patterns of involvement in the life of the church.
The death of a loved one is a life-altering experience that affects us at the deepest spiritual level and forces us to restructure our identity independent of the loved one. Our assumption that God is loving, kind, and all-powerful may come under close scrutiny. Many times, as a person works through grief and answers personal spiritual questions, his or her faith is strengthened and enriched. In other situations, the experience of grief may leave his or her faith wounded and weak, exposing spiritual issues that still beg to be addressed. In either case, just because a person may have participated in church functions (such as singing in the choir or leading a Bible study) previously doesn’t mean he or she will continue or resume that form of involvement.
Taking a break from previous involvement may be extremely helpful since being too busy may distract bereaved persons from the grief work that needs to occupy their attention. As they begin to understand more clearly God’s refined purpose for their lives, their involvement in the church (as well as in other contexts) will take on new contours.
5. Balance the focus in worship between societal and personal grief.
We are reminded fairly regularly from the pulpit, in our prayers and announcements, and even in church newsletters about the tragedies and grief that strike a nation or community. The events of 9/11, the death of soldiers in conflict abroad, and the tragedy of HIV/AIDS all trigger responses of corporate grief. And we certainly need to plead for God’s intervention, for justice, and for peace in these situations. On the other hand, we need to make sure that national or international concerns do not overshadow the attention paid to individual deaths and the subsequent grief of those in our congregations.
6. Remember that holidays and special occasions are particularly difficult times for many bereaved people.
Thanksgiving, Christmas, New Year’s Day, and Easter are joyful, celebrative occasions for many people. They are also times when those who are or who have been grieving remember their loved ones in a special way. These holidays provide special opportunities to deal with bereavement. Sermons, litanies, and prayers can be constructed to help the bereaved search for the deeper spiritual meaning of the holiday in the face of death and grief.
7. Grief doesn’t have to last for the rest of a person’s life.
Many pastors use Revelation 21:4—no more death or mourning or crying or pain—as the key verse in ministering to the grieving; we’ve used it ourselves. But be careful of implying the subtle message that grief ends only after Christ’s return. Certainly that is true in the deepest and ultimate spiritual sense. But God’s grace is sufficient for all our needs. God guides us through the valley of the shadow of death. Even Job experienced profound blessings from God after his trial and tragedy, so much so that “the Lord blessed the latter part of Job’s life more than the first” (Job 42:12). The promise of rest in eternity means that there will be no more occasions for grief to come our way. It doesn’t imply that we cannot move through our grief in this life to become whole and healthy again. We will have other occasions for grief. Other deaths will occur. Finally we too will die. And then Revelation 21:4 will become a reality for us.
Artwork by Steve Erspamer, from Graphics for Worship 2.0 CD (© 1999, Augsburg Fortress, 1-800-421-0239). Used by permisssion.
A Litany of Confession and Lament
Have mercy on us, O God, according to your unfailing love; according to your great compassion blot out our transgressions, for we have failed to live according to your perfect Word.
Wash away our iniquity and cleanse us from our sin.
O God, you have promised that you will never forsake us and will cover all our sin.
Lord, thank you for your presence in our lives.
O God, you have declared that you will not give us more than we can bear even as we live daily with the effects of a broken world.
Lord, give us the strength to deal with the sorrow and grief that come from living in a world marred by sin.
O God, you have told us to trust in you and have no anxiety about anything.
Lord, we pray for your continued help in the face of all our needs. Be near to those who grieve the death of a loved one.
O God, you have promised that you will lift us up on wings of eagles and move us from sorrow into joy.
Help us who are grieving to remember our loved ones and at the same time to embrace our new life.
O God, you have said that all of us are precious to you.
Help us to discover a new sense of purpose in our lives.
O God, may your peace, comfort, and strength be with us through this coming week.
Embrace us with your love, Lord, as we obediently journey forward in your grace. Amen.
—RD and SZ
More Resources by DeVries and Zonnebelt-Smeenge
- Getting to the Other Side of Grief: Overcoming the Loss of a Spouse. Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1998. 224 pp. $14.99.
- The Empty Chair: Handling Grief on Holidays and Special Occasions. Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 2001. 96 pp. $9.99.
- In the Shadow of Death: A Call to Live Fully to Finish Well. Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, scheduled for release June 2004.
- Ministering to the Widowed. A four-part training video for congregations. Available from Calvin Theological Seminary.