Shepherding a family when a death occurs

By Kyle McClellan

David and Nancy Guthrie, who have themselves lost two children, hosted this retreat. It was a time of great help and healing for our friends, and we’re grateful as a church for this unique ministry. This is not the first go-round for this retreat, and over time the Guthrie’s have learned the issues that most need to be addressed. One of the session topics saddened and angered me: Why you need to forgive your church.
The punch line is this: churches respond poorly to grieving parents. Of the 12 couples present, only one couple felt as though their church/pastor had been helpful in the grieving process. Most felt as though the church was not a safe place in which to grieve, and so it was increasingly avoided as an ongoing part of the grief process.

What can we learn from this? How can we as pastors help our congregations and congregational leadership do a better job of ministering to folks in the midst of unspeakable grief?

  1. Tears are not the enemy; bitterness is the enemy. Uncontrollable weeping makes us uncomfortable. We may understand it for a season, but our tolerance tends to move towards rather short seasons. Parents who have lost children are sad: really, really, really sad. They’re not bitter, nor do they need to be fixed. They need to grieve, and that grief will manifest itself primarily through tears. They cannot control when and where this will happen, and so you’ll probably have a weepy mess on your hands as a congregation at some point in this process. It’s OK. What pastors need to be mindful of is bitterness and hopelessness. Weeping in the grief process does not mean that your folks are grieving without hope (1 Thess 4:13). Hopelessness is the opposite of grieving well, not tears. Tears are a natural and healthy part of the process of grieving well a sudden and traumatic loss. Make sure you carry a spare handkerchief (tissues can’t handle the load) and let them cry. We are called to weep with those who weep (Rom 12:15).
  2. Don’t be afraid to be quiet. Grief needs to come out and be heard. It does not always need to be answered, especially not with canned nuggets of theological wisdom. Remember Job’s friends? They were doing a great job of comforting their friend. Job 2:11-13 tells us how well they started. I particularly love verse 13, “And they sat with him on the ground seven days and seven nights and no one spoke a word to him, for they saw that his suffering was very great” (ESV). Once they start talking and pontificating things go in the crapper, and fast.
    The mourning bench is not a place for words. It’s a place for silent prayer, weeping and physical closeness. Answers will come later. The great perspective of the gospel will come later. Let them mourn. Let them weep. Weep and mourn with them. It will wear you out, but it’s a part of loving and shepherding your folks well.
  3. Preach in such a way to prepare your people to suffer well. There is a time for words, but introducing them in the midst of grief is not the time. Our hope is that the Holy Spirit will bring to mind the truth they already know. As pastors, we need to preach and teach in such a way that our folks will be able to suffer well when the time comes. Note I did not say “if”, I said “when”. That season will come for all of us. Granted, it may not be as traumatic as the sudden death of a child, but we will all suffer. Pastors, I think we would be stunned and saddened at how many of our folks would take a “karma” approach to such an event in their lives:

God is punishing me for something I’ve done.”
“God killed my child in order to get my attention.”
“I guess God needed him/her more than we did.”

If you’ve not done the hard work of preaching the whole Bible (especially the OT) before such tragedy hits, you’re leaving God’s people vulnerable. At the time in their lives in which they need to cling to the great promises of the Bible, they don’t have them! Giving them “8-ways to have happier kids” does nothing to speak to the hurt of losing one of their happy children. The character of God, the reality of living under the curse of Genesis 3, the nature of the atonement, and the second coming of Jesus Christ are salve to the wounded and grieving heart.

Suffering folks are literally crying out for some sense that God is speaking to them! Thanks be to God, he has done just that! But, do we pastors have the nerve, courage and conviction to stand and proclaim that word? The answer – far too often in my own life and ministry – angers, saddens and disgusts me.

For years, John Piper’s admonition to preach, “so that his folks will die well” has echoed in my ears as I think about, pray about, prepare to preach and preach in a local church context. While I’m loath to disagree with Piper, I do think there’s a caveat to his admonition: we must prepare our people to suffer well. Let us pray and read and preach and shepherd with that goal in mind.

Helpful reads:

(This blog was previously published at Practical Shepherding and used here by permission)

Published April 11, 2017

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Kyle McClellan

Kyle McClellan is pastor of Grace Presbyterian Church in Fremont, Nebraska. He has degrees from Taylor University and The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. He is married to Amy and has two children.