Trigger warning: the following story contains references to death and suicide. If you need to talk to someone, you can call 24/7 Lifeline Australia at 13 11 14, or in New Zealand at 0800 54 33 54
A woman struggled with severe depression for many years. During that time, she saw several therapists and was hospitalised three times. Unable to see any hope for her situation, she ended her life. The death was devastating to her husband, but as he dealt with the ensuing grief, he discovered something invaluable: his faith community.
“Prior to this time, I had been spared any great tragedies in my life. And I had regarded religion in times of crisis as just another prescription for crutches. I surprised myself at just how comfortably I used those crutches. Surrounded by other worshippers at a service, reciting traditional prayers or singing in unison, it was comforting to find that when my faith was running low, I could turn to another faith which had stood the test of thousands of years. If that faith and the people who trusted in it had survived, then so would I.”
A church can be a big help to the bereaved. In the Bible, God commands faith communities to care for those who grieve. “Comfort, comfort my people, says your God” (Isaiah 40:1). “Comfort him, so that he will not be overwhelmed by excessive sorrow” (2 Corinthians 2:7).
Here are more ways the church can help someone who is grieving:
Rituals to heal
These begin with the funeral service. Shortly after a death, a spiritual leader is present to help with a funeral service. At the service, prayers are offered, scriptures are read, a eulogy is given and a sermon on faith and hope is delivered. At times, those without a faith affiliation tend to minimise and even eliminate the funeral ritual. This can create unhealthy grief.
In his book, Death and Grief: A Guide For The Clergy, Dr Alan Wolfelt said, “Clinical experience suggests that when the funeral ritual is minimised or distorted, that mourning often becomes minimised or distorted. Likewise, when no funeral ritual occurs, the mourner often adopts a complicated response style of delayed or absent grief.” A church can be effective in providing these healing rituals.
There are not many places in our culture where grief is readily permitted, but one place where people can grieve openly is in the church. It was Jesus, after all, who promised a blessing to those who are bereaved: “Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted” (Matthew 5:4).
Grief specialist Reverend Edgar Jackson commented on Jesus’ teaching about mourning. He said, “The ability to mourn may not seem to be a major asset in life. Yet as one of the Beatitudes puts it, ‘Blessed are they that mourn for they shall be comforted.’ A wise nature and spiritual resources together make it possible for us to face the emotional amputation of death and emerge from the experience as wiser and stronger persons.” The church becomes a catalyst for grief expression because it is there where mourners can shed tears of grief without being judged.
Despair often emerges when there’s been a death. The church teaches that there are sources of comfort to get through the hardest of days. A grieving person would be greatly comforted by these biblical passages: “The Lord is close to the brokenhearted and saves those who are crushed in spirit” (Psalm 34:18). And, “Do not fear, for I am with you; do not be dismayed, for I am your God. I will strengthen you and help you” (Isaiah 41:10). Even when experiencing a significant loss, the church can be there to remind individuals that they are not alone and that there is a God who can guide and strengthen them daily.
Rather than being consumed by loss or devoured by bitterness, the church promotes hopeful and optimistic ways of thinking. In the church, women and men are encouraged to count their blessings.
One woman whose husband shot himself stressed how the faith she learned in her church helped her. “Naturally, we all have questions, and I, too, have asked questions and yet I can see that no matter how hard things are it could be harder. He could have taken us with him . . . he could have killed the children . . . he only took himself. So, I see how many blessings I have. Maybe out of it all, something good will come.”
The individual grieving can be empowered by the strength of a larger faith community. The simple act of partaking in religious rituals—singing, reciting prayers, taking communion, sharing silent moments and corporate prayer—can be healing for someone grieving. Even when bereaved individuals are isolated at home due to illness or grief, the church can offer visits, help, prayer or online services from a pastor or other church members.
There is a natural tendency for grievers to withdraw and isolate when they are experiencing a lot of pain. A church offsets those tendencies by offering opportunities to meet with others in worship, small groups, prayer meetings, social activities and service projects. While there is a valid need for solitude while grieving, there is an equally valid need for social support of which the church can be.
Specific grief support
More and more churches offer bereavement support groups. One church newsletter inviting grievers to participate said the support group “offers a safe environment, enriched by our faith, where we meet to share our sorrow, our stories and our victories over sadness.
As a community of faith, we find comfort in the promise of Jesus to be with us always. If you have recently lost a loved one to death, consider attending a six-week bereavement support group designed for widowers and widows.”
This can come from a sermon, a song or an interaction with someone. One woman named Barbara Bartocci found her grief momentarily lifted by looking through her church’s stained glass windows. The year of her husband’s death had been difficult, but one morning she shattered a glass on the kitchen floor. She stared at the broken fragments and burst into tears. “My life is like this glass, I thought, shattered into pieces,” she said. Then another image came to her mind—the picture of her church’s stained-glass window that was also made of pieces of broken glass. The image brought her a healing insight. “I realised I could create a new reality out of the shattered pieces of my life. It wouldn’t be the same one John and I had shared, but it could still be beautiful.”
Every faith community has opportunities to serve. When grievers take advantage of this, they take some focus off themselves and their pain. In the process, they begin to feel better. Reverend Norman Vincent Peale said he was attending a Rotary Club meeting at a New York hotel when he saw the widow of a friend and fellow-Rotarian “sitting forlornly in the lobby”. When he asked why she was there, the widow replied sadly, “I come and sit here every week on Rotary day because I know that this is where Fred used to be.” Peale says he asked her to go with him to his church. She agreed but asked why. He said, “I told her there are some overworked women down there addressing envelopes. They need help and you’re going to give it to them. Fred would much rather have you do something like that than sit in a hotel lobby feeling sorry for yourself!” The woman went with him to the church and later told Peale that the sense of “companionship and usefulness” she received from serving eased her grief more than anything else.
Company of people with similar experiences
In every faith community, other people have lost loved ones to death. These individuals can respond with empathy, give support and model healthy grief recovery. The church can be a hospice for the hurting and a haven for those who feel hopeless. If you are experiencing a loss and would like support, get in touch with your local church. If you are a part of a faith community, be sure to look out for those who may be grieving.