The day my mother died started with prayer. It started with the laying on of hands and my father praying in tongues, begging for his wife to live. It started with me claiming the power of the name of Jesus to heal.
The day my mother died ended with questions and shrugs of shoulders and weeping hugs. It ended with squeaking out through tears, the truth that God is still good. He is still faithful. I didn’t know if I still believed it, but I wanted to speak it. To remind myself.
One year ago this weekend my mother was not healed. The process through which God has taken my family and me has been deep and wide and full of love and grace. The real challenge came on the first Sunday after her death that I had to speak. I had to get on a platform and preach. I had to speak about God’s work on the other side of the world and I had to give hope and truth to people when I had nothing to give.
I had to smile and show compassion when people cried to me about things in their lives. Both my father and I tried to minister through our grief. We tried to bear the burdens of those to whom we were ministering as we struggled to walk under the weight of our own grief.
When one encounters a loss of this magnitude, it is a great undertaking to process the loss, much less try to minister to others in the midst of it. Here are some practical things I learned while trying to minister during deep grief.
1. Take some time off.
You, my friend, are not a superhero. You pushing through and forcing yourself to minister doesn’t make you strong, it just means you are likely hurtling toward breakdown. My dad and I both took about a month before attempting to speak. I started back doing ten minute windows and Dad started preaching again at a church he knew was stable and wouldn’t require a lot of his emotional energy. Do whatever you have to do to take a few weeks to grieve. Contact your district office, schedule a missionary, do whatever you have to do to get out of the pulpit for at least a few weeks.
2. Get counseling.
One of the best things our district did to support us was to offer us counseling. I had never gone through counseling before and I was extremely apprehensive, but I found I could not make any progress in my attempts to process what had happened and how my life had changed. A great Christian counselor sat down with me and helped me process through these things. If you can’t afford a counselor, sit down with a trusted friend or mentor and let them help you.
3. “Forgive those who say insensitive things.”
One of the most valuable pieces of wisdom I received after losing Mom was from a friend who had lost her father a few years prior. She messaged me and said, “Forgive those who say insensitive things. They do mean well and you need your energy to heal.” These words have proved some of the most helpful I have received. Yes, I could list to you all the insensitive things people have said, thinking they were helping. But this piece of advice reminded me to show grace to those who do have an intention to help and to focus my attention elsewhere – namely, healing for myself and support for my family.
4. Use your situation to bring healing to others.
In 2 Corinthians, Paul gives us instruction on what to do with the healing we receive through our grief: “Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of compassion and the God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our troubles, so that we can comfort those in any trouble with the comfort we ourselves receive from God” (3-4, NIV). When I take a platform and bring to people my testimony of having walked through the valley of the shadow, they immediately are with me. I can see, from the platform, some of their eyes clinging to me. They have walked through the valley, too. When you have walked through the valley you look for those that have taken that same journey. And for those who have no hope in Christ, we have the opportunity to bring the presence of Christ who was with us in the valley to these people as well. In the same way Paul illustrated, our grief serves to take us to a new place of ministry with those who are hurting.
5. Be Dutch about your boundaries.
Some of my best friends in Paris are Dutch. They have taught me a lot about cultural differences between the Dutch and Americans, and one of the biggest differences is how direct the Dutch are. They find it strange that Americans will avoid offending people even if it is damaging to their own boundaries. In the first days that our family was grieving, we asked people not to call or visit. We didn’t answer the phone. We weren’t afraid to say no to people who asked if they could visit. There are times in our lives when we must go into survival mode and not worry about offending others. If you are pastoring, have a trusted deacon or elder in the church instruct your parishioners on appropriate boundaries. Stay out of ministry mode within the boundaries that you set for yourself and don’t be afraid to be direct about them.
6. Let people help you.
Right after Mom died, we had dozens of people contacting us asking if there was anything they could do to help. We took many of them up on their offer for everything from meals to errands. For those of us with type-A personalities and control issues (ahem…ME), it’s hard to accept help from others. It’s even harder to admit we can’t gracefully juggle grief with the everyday tasks of our lives. But allowing others to step in and help is part of the beauty of the body of Christ. It’s an opportunity for those of us who usually lead to become part of the body which is served by others.
7. Recognize that grief is awkward.
Most of us have had a friend who has experienced great loss in their lives, and we have felt the awkwardness of trying to figure out what to say, whether or not to offer help, and trying to figure out whether to step in or keep our distance. When we are grieving, we have to recognize that those around us feel that same awkwardness. It means that we need to be direct about our needs and show grace to people who err on the wrong side of that awkwardness, whether it’s offering a hug we don’t want or trying to avoid the topic altogether. It’s okay to be open with those you minister to about your boundaries. I found that “starting with the punchline” when doing a missions presentation was a good way to address the loss I had encountered and put people at ease so that I could speak to their hearts. If you pastor a church, you may have to be direct in addressing the situation with your people, including giving them ways to help or setting boundaries for your family. Don’t sit back and hope people will know what to do – assume they don’t know what to do. You giving them instructions will help ease the awkwardness and will help empower them to serve you in whatever way is best for you and your family.
8. Don’t stop talking to God.
Being in a fellowship in which healing is a cardinal doctrine and watching my mom die as we prayed healing over her created a lot of questions for me. I have asked God many questions and I have had moments of anger toward Him. I have whispered things in the secret place that I would never dare tell a soul. There were days I was so mad I wanted to ignore God, but I forced myself to keep talking. Some days that just looked like me repeating, over and over, “You are always good. You are always faithful.” I didn’t know if I still believed it but I repeated it to remind my soul. The Father’s shoulders are broad enough to carry our doubt, our questions, and yes, our anger.
The only thing I know for sure about grief is that it’s different for every person. The way in which people reached out to me may not work for you. It’s important to find what works for you and to do what you need to do to become healthy. Ministry is not the end goal – a healthy relationship with Jesus is the end goal. Put things in place around you to give yourself the most support possible and remember above all that even in the valley of the shadow, there is joy to be found.
Have you found yourself walking through grief as you minister? What are some ways you survived those difficult times? What wisdom can you share with other ministers walking through such times?