In your experience with hospice care, what is your approach to grief of those surviving the loss of a loved one? Do you think Christians tend to sugar-coat, suppress, neglect, or even ridicule the grieving process? After all, the loved one is in heaven/a better place; why should anyone be sad? Do Christians and even pastors underestimate how long the grieving process takes?
Thanks for this good question. During this time of year I take my turn leading a grief support group for those who have lost loved ones in hospice care and in our community, so the topic is fresh on my mind.
The Bible describes Jesus as a “man of sorrows, acquainted with grief.” Unfortunately, in our North American culture, we go out of our way to distance ourselves from death and the pain of loss. Christians and non-Christians alike have forged a death-denying society. As a result, we are not realistic about the aftermath of losing a loved one any more than we are prepared to face the experience of dying itself.
- First, the period of initial bereavement is considered to be about thirteen months long. The first year of living without a loved one involves going through all the annual occasions once celebrated together without that person’s presence—birthdays, anniversaries, holidays, and other times and seasons that hold special meaning.
- During that first annual cycle, those in the bereavement department make a number of phone calls to check in with family members to see how they are doing and if they need additional support. Visits are made as well when appropriate.
- The bereaved also receive regular mailings with materials about the journey of grief and information about opportunities and services that might be of help.
- The hospice holds memorial services at set times of the year to commemorate the lives of loved ones lost.
- The hospice offers support groups led by social workers and chaplains trained in bereavement care. The form these groups take varies from hospice to hospice.
- The hospice may offer educations or support opportunities for specific grief experiences—losing a child, losing a spouse, coping during the holidays, groups and camps for children and teens, experiencing a traumatic loss, etc.
- In addition, bereaved folks may be directed to resources in various media, counselors who specialize in grief work, funeral homes, faith communities, and other groups that offer additional services.
I can speak personally for other hospice workers in saying that bereavement work could easily be a full time job, and we feel like we could never do enough of it to truly meet all the needs. However, I would also say that this cannot and should not be the job of an organization like hospice. The journey of grief is taken best within the context of a caring community: family, friends and neighbors, faith group. What the hospice does is meant to supplement that and fill gaps when they appear.
You asked how Christians generally handle grief. Do they “tend to sugar-coat, suppress, neglect, or even ridicule the grieving process?” I doubt that any generalization will do. Grief is hard for everyone, and the way we deal with it varies with each individual and group. I am happy to say that I have not seen many Christians “shrugging off” the pain of loss because of the promise of heaven. The few that I have seen usually have problems facing reality in other parts of their life too. Of course, it is common to hear a bereaved one say, “He’s in a better place,” or to hear those words from those who are trying to bring comfort. However, losing a loved one usually hurts so bad that our theological justifications take second place to the reality of separation. It becomes instinctively clear that grief is not about the one who died, but about the pain I feel because he/she is gone and my life is changed forever.
Grief is like a serious injury. A person with whom I have a bond is gone. That bond has been severed, leaving a deep and tender wound. It hurts. It is sometimes hard to find relief. I have to do what I can to relieve the pain, clean and dress the wound, protect it, and give it time to heal. I must adjust my life to allow for it, and it’s a damn inconvenience, I’ll tell you. Whether or not the person who died “is in a better place” doesn’t change any of that. Grief is not selfish, but grief is about me.
I often compare grief to losing a limb. If my leg were to be amputated or lost in an accident, my life would be irrevocably altered because of that loss. I simply could not live the way I did before. Furthermore, it would hurt. It would be hard to come to grips with my new reality mentally and emotionally. I might even think that God had treated me unfairly. I would be forced to accept new assignments from life—to heal, to rehab, to learn new habits and ways of getting around, to learn what new kinds of support I will need from those around me. Perhaps I will get an artificial limb and learn to do even more than I could before I lost my leg. Perhaps I will develop the desire to help others who have gone through the same experience. Who knows where this road will lead? All I know at the moment is that I’ve taken a turn somewhere and I’m not in Kansas anymore.
An illustration like that helps me grasp what the grieving process is like. If it’s accurate, I think you can see how much we underestimate the length, breadth, and depth of the grieving experience.
- A loved one dies and the company gives you two or three bereavement days. Then it’s back to business as usual.
- Your friends come to the funeral and call for about a week and then you don’t hear from them. The cards stop coming a few days later.
- Your family has to return to work and all their other activities, their visits become less frequent within a few weeks, and within a couple of months they can’t understand why you haven’t gone through dad’s things yet, and why you refuse to talk about selling the house. What’s the matter? Why can’t you get over it and move on?
- No one, not even your pastor, understands why you don’t want to come to church. They forget that you and your husband sat in the same seat for years and did everything in church together. Being there without him just doesn’t feel right. And if the congregation sings that song you both loved, you’ll have to leave because it hurts so much. The children’s ministry coordinator doesn’t get it when you say you’ll have to stop teaching indefinitely and pressures you to reconsider. There are few who can grasp the feeling that it will do you worse to come to church than to stay home.
Perhaps the most cruel words I have ever heard were spoken by a pastor to a grieving woman. She had lost her teen son. A couple of weeks later she came to worship and remained in the sanctuary after everyone else had left. There she sat in the pew and wept. The pastor came up the aisle, paused as he saw her crying and said, “Now Laura, remember your testimony.”
As if the only attitude that can testify to the Man of Sorrows is that of soaring with a smile over all our circumstances!
Christians groups that honor history, tradition, and liturgy have more resources to deal with the path of grief than those who don’t.
- These groups tend to have a better theology of creation and the significance of life and vocation in this world. Evangelicals are often more world-denying and dualistic in their approach, which can lead to the kind of comment the pastor made above.
- These groups tend to value the Psalms more highly and have spent centuries praying them, hearing them read in worship, singing them, and praying them. Evangelical and other a-historical expressions of the faith are unpracticed in words of lament.
- These groups tend to have more depth with respect to pastoral theology, and so ministries of pastoral care and compassion ministries are valued more. Evangelicals value church growth and activism primarily, and so their view of the pastor is more of the preacher and CEO who inspires the church to go forth in mission.
- These groups have more resources to commemorate life passages through liturgy and formal prayer. As Walter Brueggemann once wrote, there is a “formfulness” that we need in times of grief and sorrow. The chaos of our spirits is quieted in the structure of familiar, formal words.
Read your Bible, pray, and get busy is, to say the least, an insufficient model for dealing with the chaos that comes to our lives through grief. And yet that is what many churches promote and many Christians lean on to get them through.