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Ministry in the Valley of the Shadow of Death

“If no one gets out of this world alive, why do we go in fear?” Maggie Callanan, in Final Journeys, recalls her father’s question and offers other possibilities for approaching death. Our Christian faith, in fact, promises that death is not an ending, but a “graduation” into a new dimension. Christian teaching exhorts us to live in such a way that when we die, we do so peacefully, “…sustained and soothed by an unfaltering trust.” (William Cullen Bryant, Thanatopsis). Indeed, as John Fanestil describes in Mrs. Hunter’s Happy Death, faith communities often celebrate death as a “glad reunion” to be anticipated with joy.
Yet many do not find themselves at peace when facing death or the loss of a loved one. Unexpected death, such as that of a child or young person, may shock and overwhelm us with grief. Infertility and miscarriage, accidents, suicide, and homicide traumatize us. Hiding the fact of death and avoiding conversations about it add to the sense of dread. How can the church help people face their own death and the inevitable loss of loved ones? Surely we do not want to make people feel guilty if they experience fear and sorrow! Some congregations train designated people or Stephen Ministers to provide care for those in the “Valley of the Shadow of Death.” Even more, through preaching and teaching, we can train all members of a congregation to minister more effectively in such situations.

The innumerable caravan, which moves
To that mysterious realm, where each shall take
His chamber in the silent halls of death,
Thou go not, like the quarry-slave at night,
Scourged to his dungeon, but, sustained and soothed
By an unfaltering trust, approach thy grave,
Like one who wraps the drapery of his couch
About him, and lies down to pleasant dreams.
(William Cullen Bryant, Thanatopsis)

Many people avoid those who are dying or bereaved because they do not know what to say, leaving mourners feeling isolated and abandoned. Caring words need not be elaborate or astute. It is better to admit that “I don’t know what to say…” and follow up with words and gestures of compassion. Saying “I cannot imagine how difficult (painful, sad, terrifying, etc.) this must be for you” conveys empathy without pretending to know how a person feels. It invites the other to share, if he or she chooses. Sometimes compassionate words will open the floodgates of grief and trigger an outpouring of feelings and details. When that happens, we can give the greatest gift possible by just listening. We may need to stifle our need to try to fix things. When someone listens with acceptance and a desire to understand, sufferers usually feel a great relief, which can free them to move on through their pain.

Sometimes well-meaning people, because of their own discomfort, will try to placate mourners or those facing the final hours of a loved one’s life by making statements that cannot possibly be confirmed. I once heard a well-meaning aunt assure her young nephew, whose father had just died, that his dad was “right up there behind that star, looking down on you.” If she had prefaced that statement with the words “I believe…,” she would at least have avoided setting herself up as a questionable authority in the eyes of her nephew, who will surely someday learn some astronomy and wonder how she could have been so sure. Statements of faith (“I know God will help you get through this” or “I believe that those we love are never very far away from us”) might best be cushioned by “I understand that may be hard for you to believe right now.”

Children need careful approaches to guide their understanding of and participation in the experience of death and dying. Trying to shield them from the reality of death and grief may end up isolating and traumatizing them even more. Staff at Discipleship Ministries recently compiled a leaflet, “When a Loved one Dies – Helping Children & Youth Cope With Death,” that summarizes what to say and do – as well as how to avoid saying and doing harmful things.

Mourners, young and old, and those anticipating the death of a loved one need to experience their grief and sadness at their own pace. Some will numb themselves with activity for a while, busying themselves with the minutia of everyday life and with the tasks that must be faced in the aftermath of death. Others will collapse in pain immediately. There is no “right way” to mourn, but loving companions can make the journey bearable by simply standing by, asking what is needed, and waiting patiently for direction.

“Grief is perhaps the hardest work humans have to do,” noted the Rev. Linda Littlefield Grenfell, a United Methodist pastor in Maine, who led a local church workshop on the subject. “Mourners may lose control, fearful that they will never stop weeping and may never recover from the pain. However, the opposite is true. It is only when we name and process grief that we recover, gain control and learn to enjoy living again. Burying grief disconnects us from ourselves, from others, and from the Divine. Denying grief often results in physical illness, depleting the immune system and making us more susceptible to colds and flu or worse. Depression, cancer, accidents, asthma -- all can be triggered by denial of grief. Overeating and sleeplessness may lead to illness. Numbing behaviors like alcohol, drugs, excessive screen time, pornography, and even overworking can debilitate health and destroy quality of life.”

Grenfell goes on to describe how, immediately after a death, the family and the community may gather around the bereaved, bringing food, offering transportation, checking in – for a while. Then they may assume they are no longer needed, expecting the grieving person to get back to work or to some other routine. Grieving people may hesitate to bother others with their needs - for company, for distraction, or for someone to talk or even cry with them. What helps is ongoing contact with family and friends who are willing to keep the memory of the loved one alive. “Knowing that grieving persons are likely thinking of their loved one all the time anyway, we should not hesitate to bring up the person’s name or share a memory. We might fear that saying ‘I remember when…” will trigger tears or an outpouring of feelings, but your willingness to listen empathically to whatever mourners need to say can be very healing. There is no ‘getting over’ such a loss. Life has changed permanently. But when persons are allowed and encouraged to process grief in their own way, when they experience companionship along the journey, they will in their own time be able to move through it to a day when they can smile again, and even laugh.”

Grenfell then offers specific advice: “Encourage your congregation to persist in making contact, even if their invitations are declined. Writing notes or emails, bringing bread or other treats, and calling from time to time all serve as reminders to mourners that they are not alone. Remember birthdays and anniversaries, even just to say ‘I am thinking of you today.’ Offer information about a grief support group or consider getting one started. If you see danger signs, evidence that the bereaved may be isolating or drugging themselves with alcohol, medication, food, or screen time, ask for help and consult with family, other friends, a pastor or other professional. Ask yourself what would you want? What would help you? Probably you would not want to be left alone, but you would want to be respected, not patronized or criticized. Your quiet presence may be the most healing. You do not have to give answers, directions, or solutions - there aren’t any. Grief is hard work, for which we need the support of others. Working through grief may also liberate, strengthen, and renew us. Those who companion others on their grief journeys walk on sacred ground and manifest the healing power of love.”

In addition to the following resources, see Caring for Widows and Widowers and other articles addressing specific circumstances at www.marriagelovepower.net (under “Best Practices Articles and Recommended Resources/Ministering with Those in Crisis or Transition”) or search Discipleship Ministries' resources by topic or title.

For additional information:
Download Resources for Ministry in the Valley of the Shadow of Dead [PDF]

Jane P. Ives, United Methodist Marriage and Family Ministries Consultant
10 Quaker Lane, Portland, ME 04103, 207-797-8930, [email protected]

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