Thursday, October 2, 2014

Sympathy in Grief

Last weekend, my internship church and community experienced a tragedy far out of character for the community. A double homicide took the life of one of our members just a few short blocks from the church. While I didn't know the woman personally, she was involved in a couple different groups here, and St. John is devastated.

This woman leaves behind an elementary-aged daughter, and in a better situation, I would be connecting with the family to provide what ministry I can. However, in this situation there are legal difficulties and custody problems that make it difficult to connect with the daughter. Difficult does not mean impossible, however. Pastor asked me yesterday to attend the visitation and funeral today to meet this woman's family, especially her daughter, to offer my assistance in any way, and so the majority of my afternoon will be spent with this family.

Concordia's Family Life program is strong in many ways. It prepares students for life span development, interpersonal communications, faith formation, and almost anything that affects the family. However, there is no class on death and dying. There is no class on how to talk to a young girl whose mother was killed and whose father is unable to care for her. There is no way to teach a student how to minister in a meaningful way to a family experiencing tragedy. How does a stranger even begin to minister to someone going through such a deep and all-encompassing loss?

Thoughts like this have been at the forefront of my mind all week. I have searched for answers in the depths of the internet, in Scripture, in my network of colleagues, and no one seems to know the answer. Speaking to someone after the loss of a loved one is hard enough; that conversation is made doubly hard when one knew neither the deceased nor her family.

That being said, there are few situations in which a Director of Family Life Ministries is more needed than after a death. Through prayer and research, I have found a few guidelines for how to react to my congregation's situation that you may find relevant in yours.

1. Be present. Even if you never knew the family or the deceased, the presence of a church staff member can be incredibly comforting to the person's loved ones. The officiating pastor will be busy with the immediate family and with the service(s). Aside from the pastor (and you, the Director of Family Life Ministries), there may not be another church worker at the funeral or visitation. Whether you can minister to the mother, the best friend, or the second cousin twice removed who hadn't seen the deceased in years, your presence is vital.

2.. Ask for guidance. The best tip Pastor gave me yesterday was to ask the funeral director to introduce me to the deceased's immediate family. The funeral director will have been working with them to prepare for the funeral, and he (or she) will be able to introduce you to the family. 

3. Leave a card. Introducing yourself to the family in the midst of the busy-ness of the funeral and visitation is a guaranteed way to get yourself (and your offer of assistance) forgotten. In addition to speaking to the family directly, leave a card with your sympathies as well as your name, offer of assistance, and contact information. The family may not have the time or emotional capacity to accept your offer right away, but in a few days, weeks, or months, they may find that card and contact you.

4. Don't push. The family is overwhelmed as it is. Talking their ears off is the last thing you want to do, especially if they don't know you. Introduce yourself, offer your sympathies, leave your card, and then (unless they indicate otherwise), step aside. You can remain for a few minutes in case anyone would like to speak to you, but remember that grief, for many people, is a private thing. Once you have offered your ministry, let the family grieve in their own way and their own time.

If anyone has any other tips for similar situations, please leave them in the comments below. Please also say this prayer with me.

Lord, I thank you for the grace and forgiveness that you have offered through your Son, Jesus Christ. One day you will "wipe every tear from our eyes", but until that time, I ask that you would be with everyone affected by the murders in Berlin, Wisconsin. Guide the law enforcement of the community as they continue to search for justice for those families who lost a loved one, comfort the families experiencing the loss, and most of all, be with the young girl who is dealing with the loss of her mother and the separation from her father. Come quickly, Lord Jesus, and rescue us from this veil of tears. Amen.

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