Pastoring Our People Through Grief

by Rev. Daniel Coffin

Pastor, what is your first reaction when the phone rings and you answer it only to learn that a member of your flock has lost a loved one? After thirty-six years of answering those calls, I will admit that it still hits like a brick to the forehead. No matter how many families or individuals you walk with through grief, it never gets easier. My pastoral ministry, by nature, involved hundreds of funeral services, yet rather than “get easier” with experience, it got tougher for me. My purpose for this article is to encourage you in your situation, not to give you all the answers.
We all know the verse, “But we do not want you to be uninformed, brethren, about those who are asleep, so that you will not grieve as do the rest who have no hope.” I believe that this reminder from Paul is a starting place, not the end-all for any pastor dealing with grief. Grief is defined as deep sorrow, with the depth of a person’s grief directly proportionate to the depth of their love for the deceased. I have observed a common tendency among believers. Too often, we attempt to comfort a grief-stricken person with platitudes, well-meaning granted, but still, platitudes that do nothing to assuage the sorrow we have encountered.

The first step to me is what I call the priority of presence. If possible, get to that person/family immediately. Rarely is it an opportune time when these calls come, but you were called for a reason. Sermon prep, planning meetings, even counseling sessions can be rearranged with a bit of finesse and explanation. Obviously, if the family is too far away for you to go to them immediately, you will need to minister to them by phone but follow-up as soon as possible with a personal visit. As the spiritual leader to that family, your physical presence will serve to remind them of God’s deep love. I will never forget the looks on the faces of countless families when I stepped into their home, the hospital room, or nursing home where a family was gathered. It was both humbling and heart-warming.

Grief is a very real human emotion. As pastors, we must guard against minimizing it to anyone going through loss. It is far too easy to say the wrong thing; more people are hurt by kind words than you might realize. If the person you are focused on starts talking, listen carefully. You might hear anger, frustration, hopelessness, fear, or uncertainty. At times, that anger will be expressed against God since you are there as His representative. The best thing I learned early in my pastoral career was that God does not need me to defend Him. Allow people to speak honestly. What they express is where they are at that moment.

The best thing any pastor can do right then is the hardest thing. That is, listen patiently and allow the person or people to express their sorrow without attempting to say kind things to make them feel better. While we have all suffered loss and know what our grief felt like, we cannot assume that another person feels the same way right then. Losing a loved one can produce shock or sadness like nothing else in life. As pastors, it is our desire to comfort, but how best to comfort someone in that moment, that is the subject of this article. I trust the following observations will help when you need it most.

The second factor for me was prior prayer. I find it helpful to call upon a prayer warrior or two before heading off to meet the family. Perhaps one call can begin a network of carefully placed calls. By that, I mean consideration for the circumstances involved in the death. Seeking prayer for that grieving family and for your ministry is powerful, but if you must go into a myriad of details to ask someone to pray, that is not the right person. I have been blessed with a small circle of folks I could call and, in one minute, get that mission underway. Usually, my secretary was my starting point, but if they were not available, a back-up plan was in place. I headed out to meet with the family, knowing that prayers were being offered up, even as I drove to meet the family. I also found that praying along the way prepared my heart and mind for what I would encounter upon arrival.

Arriving at your destination and making that initial contact requires pastoral sensitivity. You may walk into a room with just the spouse and no one else. There may be a collection of family, friends, and medical personnel gathered, each with their own agenda or responsibilities. There are as many situations as there are grieving people but let me offer a couple of scenarios as examples. You arrive at a hospital after a call from a staffer on behalf of the loved ones. In that situation, try to connect with that person immediately for guidance to the family and perhaps a bit of information about the death. In another scenario, you arrive at the family home after a call from one of the deceased’s children on behalf of their other parent. Introduce yourself to the person meeting you at the door unless they know you personally. Make your way to the wife, husband, or children as quickly as possible and let them know you are there for them. Each situation is going to be different, so remain flexible; the purpose of this first contact is ministry, not counseling.

Keep in mind that while you desire to help the grieving ones, grief is a process, not an event. Many Christians say things that are biblically true but contextually out of place. I mentioned platitudes earlier and would ask you to consider these observations. Grief hurts. In our love or care for the grieving, we must not rush people through their grief. I have talked to hundreds of grieving people, and the common ground is that too many people try to make them feel better immediately. Ask yourself this question: Is my desire to see this person moving through grief quickly, for my own comfort? In other words, am I inadvertently trying to rush the process because I hurt for them and want my pain to end? One of the gifts of love we can offer as Christian pastors is to walk with the hurting, not just give directions on how to get out of the grief.

In John 16:20, Jesus talked to the disciples about His coming departure and addressed their questions about what He meant. He said, “Very truly, I tell you, you will weep and mourn while the world rejoices. You will grieve, but your grief will turn to joy.” Then in verse 22, He said, “Now is your time of grief…” There is a time to weep and a time to rejoice. As pastors, it is important to distinguish the two and help people grieve. To those of you reading this with years of experience of your own, thank you for that service to the Kingdom.

But, if you have not attended to hundreds of grieving people, all precious to God, my encouragement to you is this. Do no dread these calls nor the opportunities they afford. The dichotomy is that the most difficult aspect of my pastoral call is to walk with the grieving, but it also provides an incredible privilege for ministry. I will address evangelism in context in a future article, but for now, the focus is to pastor, that is to care for the sorrowing sheep of your flock. Accept this as a part of our calling – Jesus suffered for us, He died for us, but for now, He asks us to live for Him. Give them Jesus, but let Holy Spirit guide you in the process.

Ministry is full of both challenges and blessings. Ministry to the grieving contains both. Oh, the joy of seeing people come to salvation in the weeks and months following these contacts because you patiently represented Christ when they needed to see Him clearly. The saying “people don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care” applies here. Show people that Jesus cares about their pain and that He loves them deeply. Remember, He is no stranger to grief.

Do not be shocked or shaken if laughter finds its way into the meeting. One means of dealing with grief is to go through the range of emotions we experience as humans. While this is not a time to tell a joke to lighten things up, the family might be sharing stories, and a funny memory pops up. Allow them to interact as they choose.

Finally, the question I am often asked by colleagues is how to exit that meeting? This is something that you will develop over time. Do not overstay your visit, but do not rush to leave. Read the circumstances. If things have settled down to details about the service, etc., it is a good time to assure the family that you will be available to them to discuss those things when they are ready. Ask if you may share a Scripture with them, then pray, not a preachy sermon prayer, but a short heartfelt prayer of comfort and hope. Ask if there are immediate needs that the church family might help with, such as food, lodging, or transportation, and offer to arrange these for them. If practical, set a time to follow-up before you leave, then give your contact information to those who will be reaching out to you.