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As people die, grief ministries called key outreach for churches

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (BP)–Churches should begin ongoing grief ministries because death is a constant and people need to learn to deal with loss, Betty Hassler told senior adult leaders gathered at LifeWay Christian Resources.

“The whole purpose of grief is to bring you to the point of making necessary changes so you can live with the loss in a healthy way,” Hassler, an editor of discipleship materials, said during the March 22-24 Senior Adult Leadership Summit at the Southern Baptist agency in Nashville, Tenn.

“Grief is completely personal. Some people are expressive and cry a lot. Others want to talk. Some people are just quiet. People just have to be who they are,” she said. “There really is no right or wrong way to grieve.”

Using an example from history, Hassler recalled how people admired the bravery and composure Jacqueline Kennedy demonstrated as a young widow after the 1963 assassination of her husband, President John F. Kennedy.

“Some people aren’t that stoic, and trying to be that way isn’t going to let them grieve appropriately,” Hassler said.

“In our culture there is a huge fallacy about grief. We say the more you can hold it together and stay composed, the better you’re handling your grief. The stoicism may really delay the resolution of the grief,” she said.

In addition to being personal, grief should be specific, she said.

“If you don’t grieve each time you feel like it, it will build, and somewhere down the line you will explode,” Hassler said, citing an example of a woman who fell apart when an acquaintance died.

“She wasn’t grieving for the friend. She was grieving for her father who had died when she was 12 years old.”

Also, she said grief needs a time limit. “There has to be a period of time from the death to the resolution. You need to be able to say, ‘I’ll need this much time to grieve,’ and then work toward that.”

When establishing an ongoing grief ministry in a local church, Hassler suggested leaders determine whom they hope to reach.

Church members and non-church members, Christians and non-Christians lose people they love. Everyone has grief experiences.

“Think of the outreach implications,” Hassler said.

Hassler defined five components or groups that can help develop successful grief ministries. They are:

— Sunday school — supply food, flowers, phone calls, visits and physical, tangible help.

— Pastor and staff — prepare for the funeral, the graveside service and counseling.

— Deacons — pray and visit the family.

— Senior adult organization — fulfills some of the same roles as a Sunday school class, but can also lead in organizing the process.

— Other (perhaps a bereavement committee) — divides the responsibilities among church members and facilitates support over a period of weeks.

Church leaders need to emphasize the importance of notifying the church when a death occurs, she said.

“The pastor can’t know if someone doesn’t tell him. Someone needs to be sure the calls get made,” Hassler, a pastor’s wife, said.

Practical needs must also be met, she said.

“With their permission, of course, do something like mow the yard or wash a load of laundry. If there will be family from out of town coming in and staying in the home, change the sheets on the beds,” Hassler suggested. “You might even need to help the survivor get appropriate clothing for the funeral.”

On the day of the funeral, other types of help will be needed. Someone can make sure to get the names and addresses of the people who sent flowers and what the arrangements were like. Someone else could make trips to the airport to pick up people who come in from out of town.

“House-sitting is something that needs to be covered,” Hassler said. “How often do you hear of someone’s house being robbed while the funeral is going on? The death notice is in the paper, along with the address and the time the house will be empty. Somebody needs to stay there.”

In the days and weeks after the funeral, the needs will change. A widow might need to learn how to handle the household business. A widower might need to learn how to do the laundry.

“For many senior adult couples, the roles of responsibility were clearly defined,” Hassler said. “She does the household chores, and he does the business and the yard work.”

Have someone in place to remember special anniversaries and holidays. Send a card to the home. Invite the bereaved to share a meal, either at a restaurant or in your home, but not in their home so they feel like they have to entertain you.

“Don’t let them just sit home alone on special days,” Hassler said.

Support groups can be helpful to people working through their grief, she noted. Resources are available to help churches establish these groups. Hassler mentioned “Recovering from the Losses of Life” by Norman Wright, a study of his own grief journey following the death of his son, published by LifeWay Christian Resources.

Mentoring or counseling can also help someone work through grief.

“You can’t make them get help if they don’t want to, but encourage them to talk to someone. Volunteer to drive them and stay with them while they go,” Hassler said.

Finally, have a group who can provide services around the house, such as a homemaker helper, financial/business helper or home maintenance helper. “Think about how hard it might be for some people to do simple tasks like changing light bulbs,” Hassler said. “This type of thing is really needed and appreciated.

“With 30,000 senior adults dying every day, there is a need for grief ministries in our churches,” Hassler said. “We can be there for people. God can use us if we are available.”

About 350 seniors and leaders attended the Senior Adult Summit sponsored by LifeWay’s discipleship and family group.

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  • Polly House