Woman comforting desperate hopeless friend, view from above
Woman comforting desperate hopeless friend, view from above

Longings and Losses: Working with Grieving Families - Part 2

What should we say to a grieving person? How can we minister to someone who is going through a loss? This article is the second of a two-part seminar that will equip you to minister to grieving families

Article January 6, 2021

by David and Beverly Sedlacek

Goals and Objectives

By the end of this article, readers will be able to:

1. List five statements that are not to be said to grieving individuals 

2. Three skills necessary to be a “compassionate consoler” for others 

3. Identify 3 areas in which the church can show support for the grieving individual over time 

4. Describe the use of scripture in experiencing the comfort of God 

5. Identify 3 ways the role of the pastor and chaplain are important in the grief process 

Helping others in the Grief Process: How to be a Compassionate Comforter 

Spirituality often is part of the grieving process. A person often finds themselves looking for or questioning the higher purpose of a loss. They ask “why” questions. Many find comfort in their religious or spiritual beliefs, while others may doubt their beliefs in the face of traumatic or senseless loss. When this happens, show your support to the grieving person. This includes emotional support but also practical support in the form of meals, phone calls, cards and so forth. It is often helpful to grieve with family members, if possible, to share memories and experiences whether the loss was a death in the family or another form of loss.  

What Not to Say to a Grieving Person 

Most people do not intend to be insensitive to a person experiencing grief. Many are out of touch with their own feelings and, therefore, find it difficult to connect meaningfully to a grieving person. When you don’t know what to say, it is better to say nothing at all. Just your presence is saying that you care. 

Sometimes, well-meaning people can wound a grieving person by saying the following things: “Don’t feel that way.” “God just needed another angel.” “You are young. You can have another child.” “God doesn’t give you more than you can handle.” “We may not understand it, but it was God’s will.” “At least she lived a long life; many people die young.” “He is in a better place.” “She brought this on herself.” “There is a reason for everything.” “Aren’t you over him yet, he has been dead for a while now.” “She was such a good person that God wanted her to be with him.” “I know how you feel.” “She did what she came here to do and it was her time to go.” “Be strong.” 

Helpful Things to do 

It is important to allow a person to have their grief process and to not try to “fix” them. Often, the most helpful thing to do is simply to listen empathically, that is, with all of your attention and focus as if that person were the only person in the world at this moment. The “ministry of presence” can be helpful – just being there with them helps to soothe feelings of loss and loneliness. Attempt to assess what the person may need at the time. Not everyone grieves in the same way. Try not to let your feelings get in the way. Address your own discomfort with the pain of seeing yourself or others grieving, and get out of your comfort zone to meet the needs of the other person. 

Be attentive to providing support after the immediate loss, as it will continue to be needed. Assist your church community to establish rituals that would show respect and honor to the deceased (in the case of death). Examples might include: tying a black ribbon where the person may have routinely sat in church or “FIRSTs”. Firsts refer to significant first holidays, birthdays, and anniversaries related to the loss. Anniversaries can be times full of painful memories. Remembering and being sensitive to a person’s need for comfort during these times, especially anniversaries can be an important ministry to a grieving person. 

| EXERCISE | From the information above, identify things that you have said or done that have been helpful or unhelpful. Have you addressed your own feelings during times of grief? Write about what you have learned that has been especially helpful. 

A Special Note to Pastors and Chaplains 

You will often be called upon to conduct a funeral or memorial service. The service may or may not be for a person who is a Christian. It is important to spend time getting to know the family. They may or may not know how to grieve or celebrate the life of their loved one. Inquire about their desire for the setting and structure of the service. They may look to you for suggestions about how to structure a funeral or memorial service. Remember that it is for them and not for you. Evaluate carefully whether integrating Adventist doctrine into the service would be in the family’s best interest. 

The better you know the person, the more effectively you will be able to speak words of comfort. You will know what they need and be able to surround them to the kind of help that they truly need. 

Experiencing the Comfort of God 

Scripture is filled with words of instruction and comfort for those traveling the journey of grief. Some example of Scriptures that are used to comfort others include the classic Psalms 23. Other Scriptures include: 

• “Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of compassion and the God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our troubles, so that we can comfort those in any trouble with the comfort we ourselves receive from God. For just as we share abundantly in the sufferings of Christ, so also our comfort abounds through Christ. If we are distressed, it is for your comfort and salvation; if we are comforted, it is for your comfort, which produces in you patient endurance of the same sufferings we suffer. And our hope in you is firm, because we know that just as you share in our sufferings, so also you share in our comfort” (2 Cor 1:3-11). 

• “The Lord builds up Jerusalem; he gathers the exiles (outcasts) of Israel. He heals the brokenhearted and binds up their wounds” (Ps 147:2-3). 

• “A merry (cheerful) heart is good medicine, but a broken (crushed) spirit dries the bones” (Proverbs 17:22). 

• “The human spirit can endure in sickness, but a crushed spirit who can bear?” (Proverbs 18:14). 

• “A happy heart makes the face cheerful, but by sorrow of the heart, the spirit is broken” (Proverbs 15:13). 

There is power in the living Word of God as it is spoken into the heart of a hurting, grieving human person. Many will never have experienced the power of God in real ways in their lives. Others, during times of grief, lose hold of their trust and confidence in God. Below are some reminders to anchor persons in God during times of grief. Hebrews 4:12 says, “For the word of God is alive and active. Sharper than any double-edged sword, it penetrates even to dividing soul and spirit, joints and marrow; it judges the thoughts and intents of the heart.” A living connection between the Comforter and the Spirit of God is essential to effective prayer ministry of comfort. Many people have never experienced comfort in their own lives as humans. They’ve not been permitted to have normal human feelings, and therefore have little or no framework in which to put comfort from God. 

It is important to recall that Jesus Himself was touched with the feelings of our infirmities when He was born to an unwed mother, had no earthly father, was a refugee, struggled to surrender His will to His Father in Gethsemane, was betrayed by a kiss, sold for the price of a slave, stripped naked, physically, verbally, and mentally, and violated by the religious leaders. Jesus was shamed, humiliated, and embarrassed by men in power over him who should have been protecting Him and supporting Him. He was tempted to numb His pain when His situation seemed to be hopeless and useless. He cried out “My God, My God, Why have You forsaken Me?” in the midst of being unfairly treated, unjustly accused, rejected, arrested, convicted, and murdered as He was suffering and dying for our sin, shame, and guilt. 

Jesus was tempted to relinquish His identity from the beginning to the end of His life. At the beginning of his public ministry, Satan tempted him in the wilderness to doubt His identity by declaring “If you are the Son of God.” At the end of his ministry, He was taunted on the cross by the Jewish leaders, by the Roman soldiers and by the thief on the cross with the same words. 

During times of grief, people must face difficult questions such as “Why, God?” “Why did you not stop the abuse?” “Why did you give me these broken parents?” “Why did you let my child die?” “Why did you allow this miscarriage to happen?” Rather than discourage them from having these feelings, even feelings of anger at God, they need to be supported in expressing these feelings. 

Both Job (Job 15) and David (Psalm 22 and more) engaged in healthy biblical lament. They freely expressed their feelings to God. If we truly believe in a compassionate God, we will not fear God’s wrath when we lament during times of loss and grief. God is big enough to handle our feelings. Rather than fearing Jesus, invite Him into the places of pain and grief in our experience. Pray Scriptures such as the following into our hearts and those of others: “The Lord will surely comfort Zion and will look with compassion on all her ruins; he will make her deserts like Eden, her wastelands like the garden of the LORD. Joy and gladness will be found in her, thanksgiving and the sound of singing” (Isaiah 51:3). “In all your sufferings, he also suffered. He lifted them up and carried them through all the years” (Isaiah 63:9). 

|GROUP EXERCISE | Write about times in your life when you have experienced Jesus as being particularly close to you. How about far away? How have you been comforted by God? Do you experience God’s comfort through internalizing his word? Share your thoughts and experiences with others in a small group.

ABOUT THE AUTHORS: 

David Sedlacek, PhD, LMSW, CFLE is a Professor of Family Ministry and Discipleship Seventh-day Adventist Theological Seminary at Andrews University in Berrien Springs, MI, USA. 

Beverly Sedlacek, DNP, MSN, PMHCNS-BC, RN, is a Therapist in Private Practice and Clinical Directo 

This article was published as part of the 2019 Planbook, “Reaching Families for Jesus: Strengthening Disciples.” Click here to download a FREE digital copy of this book with more helpful resources.