In my first year of my first appointment, an elderly woman in the church by the name of Bernice lost her 50-year-old son named Sam to cancer. Sam’s funeral was the first one I ever did in that small church and, drawing from I Thessalonians 4, I reminded Bernice and the congregation surrounding her that we could grieve as people who HAVE hope and that there will in fact be a reunion in the sky when Christ returns.
Yet as a young pastor I knew: Bernice is going to need on-going pastoral care as she copes with every parent’s deepest trauma: attending the funeral of their own child.
So I resolved to have weekly visits at Bernice’s modest home for the next year. She didn’t know of the plan; she just graciously said “yes” every time I called to ask if I might come over and have a visit. More than saying “yes,” she provided me with weekly delicacies: a Dr. Pepper and a Bugle’s Snacks. (What is a Bugle, anyway? A chip? A cracker? Or an entirely separate species of salty deliciousness?)
And in these weekly visits, surrounded by carbonation and salination, we talked about Sam: his quirks, his passions, his accomplishments, and his regrets. And we talked about what it was like for Bernice to go on in life without him. In short, we did grief work together.
Well, a quarter-century later, I am in a much different ministry setting and not in a position to make weekly home visits to anyone. Yet some of the principles from that foundational experience still apply to how we at Good Shepherd United Methodist Church help families navigate the on-going journey of grief.
1) Recording the memorial service
In immediate aftermath of the funeral/memorial, we provide six complimentary CDs of the service to the family. In that way, they can re-visit the memories, laughter, songs that were shared and tears that were shed in that appointed time for community grief we call a funeral.
2) Sending notes of encouragement
We sent notes of encouragement and reflection at the one month, three month, six month, and one year anniversary of the loved one’s death.
3) Saying the name of the deceased
In our grief counseling (whether in home or in the office), we make a point to say the name of the one who has died. Many people in the culture at large are fearful of speaking the name of the deceased in the presence of survivors, not knowing how much healing power that practice contains.
4) Asking open-ended questions
Our interaction with survivors also involves a series of open-ended questions: “What time of day is hardest for you?” “Are there places you avoid these days?” “What was he like?” “What makes you laugh when you think about her?”
5) Offering Grief Share groups
Twice a year, we offer Grief Share groups led by lay people who have walked the journey themselves.
All of these “large church” practices were honed in a small church setting and inspired by a grieving mother with the gift of Dr. Pepper flavored hospitality.