Despite being part of Christian tradition, helping those who are experiencing grief is often a challenge for the Church.
Grief is the process of adjusting to life after a loss. It’s something that everyone experiences, from big life-changing events to seemingly small changes.
The Reverend Dr Christine Gapes is a Chaplaincy Coordinator at Western Sydney University. She has encountered people grieving as part of various leadership roles in the church.
“Grief is a reaction to loss and through our lives we will experience many losses, some deeply wounding and others seemingly less important,” says Christine. “But we cannot judge what loss will be felt by a person to be important.”
“The loss of pets or sporting losses can be just as deeply felt by some as the destruction by flood or fire,” Christine explains.
“We often focus only on the negative aspects of loss (material possessions, sexual abuse, death of family and friends as well as a sense of belonging, faith/spirituality) but there may also be grief associated with “positive” losses such as going to high school or university, leaving school, engagement, marriage or remarriage.”
While grief is this widespread and comes at us from a variety of angles, it is often misunderstood.
The late Ruth Park was an esteemed Australian writer. One of her works is a 1993 Sydney Morning Herald piece about grieving, in which she suggests that Australian culture “knows little about meeting grief head on.”
Grief, Park suggests, “… [h]as come to be our most impregnable Tower of Babel, the very symbol of non-communication. We stand about in tears, wishing we could assuage the pain of persons dumbfounded by woe, but mostly we don’t know what to say. Better to make no reference at all? Better, more tactful, to allow them to get over it in their own time?”
“I’ve found it very helpful to give people an awareness of how complicated, drawn out and difficult grief can be,” says Christine.
“Explaining the “normal” process of grief (which varies from person to person and depending on the type of loss they have experienced) helps people accept that the sadness may last a long time, that crying is okay, that feeling strange and even hearing the deceased doesn’t mean you are crazy. There is a normal sadness or depression that comes with grief and we need to allow ourselves to hold this sadness rather than trying to ‘soldier on.’”
Grief and the Bible
Grief is part of the Christian tradition. It has a strong presence in Scripture, with some of the Psalms, and Job among the readings that Christine recommends for Christians experiencing loss.
“Reading the Psalms or Job can be helpful for Christians as they show how angry, sad, or confused people were with God when loss pushed them down,” says Christine.
“Too often Christians are given a sense of false relationship with God in which we believe we are always to be on our perfect good behaviour, never questioning God, always being confident in our faith. Those who are grieving can feel as if the Psalmist understands their deep grief, when they are alone, when they are drowning in their tears. Revealing the humanity as well as the divinity of Christ is important for our acceptance of grief—when Jesus wept for Lazarus, or cried out “Why have you forsaken me?””
Helping young people deal with grief is a challenge that Christine says she has experienced.
“Young people are very conscious of how they are perceived by their peer group,” she says.
“One 13 year old girl told me she could not grieve fully for her father who had died because whenever she came into a room where her friends were gathered they all fell silent, not knowing what to say or do. “It was as if I brought the long shadow of death behind me,” she commented.”
How Do We Help Those Who Grieve?
Christine suggests a few practical ways that Christians may help friends or loved ones that are experiencing grief.
“When a death or great loss occurs, ministers and youth leaders can help young people by talking about what it is like to grieve, to suggest ways in which friends can help. Practical things like sending flowers or a card, paying for someone to go to a camp, or making sure they continue to come to youth group may help the grieving process.”
“I found that when helping young people grieve, that getting them to make drawings, show precious belongings, or photos helped them talk about their loss. It was difficult for them to look me in the eye or talk without something that they could focus on. It seemed they did not want to be seen directly but at a distance.”
Services for the grieving
For many people who are grieving, important dates on the calendar can be painful, including Christmas. For this reason, many churches provide a ‘Blue Christmas’ services, which offer a reflective space for people who have lost a loved one.
In 2017, West Epping Uniting Church ran a Thanksgiving and Memorial Service in the lead up to Christmas. The Rev. Radhika Sukumar-White told Insights that the service is open to anyone who found the holiday to be a tough time of year.
“It’s a really lovely and reflective space for those who attend” she said. “We sing lower-energy carols, we listen to Scripture passages that speak of hope in despair.”
“Perhaps the most special part of the service is the opportunity for anyone to come forward and light a candle from the Christ candle in remembrance of someone or something.”
“For some, the personal struggles they are going through are named and respected in the space, but for many others, this service is just a chance to breathe and gain some respite from the rush and bustle and stress and joy-to-the-max of this season.”
Jonathan Foye is Insights’ editor
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