Caring For the Grieving

By Kathy Ferguson Litton

As spiritual leaders we come alongside people often in the midst of losses.  We are asked to wade into the deep waters of their grief.  And most of us feel entirely inadequate. We want to run away not into it. We fear we will harm instead of help. Nothing was more daunting to me in my 20’s and early 30’s than this type of assignment.

Then at 45 I was drowning in my own grief, many came into my deep waters and served me. I began to learn about grief from my own front row seat. Plus I read everything I could.

I fell upon this profound, illuminating piece by Henri Nouwen.  It resonated with my experience but even more importantly he offered help to people who desire to give care in losses.

Many of you have felt as ill equipped as I have. Our fear and discomfort can be overwhelming. Yet authentic, if even in-perfect, ministry is better than running away from that moment. Consider these words your seminar for ministry to the hurting.  Henri will identify the struggle we have between “care and cure”— he takes the pressure off with this distinction. Take his insight to heart. Use his understanding to arm yourself to lean in with a greater confidence.

What does it mean to care? The word care finds its root in the Gothic “kara” which means, “lament”. The basic meaning of care is to grieve, to experience sorrow, to cry out with. I am very much struck by this background of the word care because we tend to look at caring as an attitude of the strong toward the weak, of the powerful toward the powerless, of the have toward the have-nots. And in fact, we feel quite uncomfortable with an invitation to enter into someone’s pain before doing something about it.

Still, when we honestly ask ourselves which persons in our lives mean the most to us, we often find that it is those who instead of giving much advice, solutions or cures, have chosen rather to share our pain and touch our wounds with a gentle and tender hand. The friend who can be silent with us in a moment of despair or confusion, who can stay with us in an hour of grief and bereavement, who can tolerate not knowing, not-curing, not-healing and face with us the reality of our powerlessness, that is the friend who cares…..

Our tendency is to run away from the painful realities or try to change them as soon as possible. But cure without care makes us into rulers, controllers, manipulators and prevents real community from taking shape. Cure without care makes us preoccupied with quick changes, impatient and unwilling to share each other’s burden. And so cure can often become offending instead of liberating. It is therefore not so strange that cure is not seldom refused by people in need.

“And whereas under ordinary circumstances, the strength of the traveler diminishes in proportion as he has traversed more and more of his toilsome road, with them it is the very reverse; they go from strength to strength.” Franz Delitzsch.

Our losses frequently act toward us as if they had cleared our eyes; at any rate, sickness and sorrow have often been the fingers of Jesus, with which he applied the salve of illuminating grace. Either the understanding is more than ordi­narily enlarged, or else the promises are more simply opened up and explained by the Holy Spirit. Who has not observed the supernatural wisdom of the long afflicted saint? Who has not known the fact that the school of sanctified sorrow is that in which are to be found the ripest scholars?

We learn more true divinity by our trials than by our books. The great Reformer said, ‘Prayer is the best book in my library.’ He might have added affliction as the next. Sick­ness is the best Doctor of Divinity in all the world; and trial is the finest exposition of Scrip­ture. This is so inestimable a mark of the love of our blessed Lord that we might almost desire trouble for the sake of it. This proves him to be wise in his hardest dealings towards us, and therefore supremely kind; for is it not kindness which puts us to a little trouble for the sake of an immense advantage, and does it, as it were, take our money out of our coffers at home that it may return again with mighty interest? Jesus is a friend indeed!

Jesus is not always absent when he is unseen; but, on the contrary, he is frequently near to us when we have no assurance of his presence.

Thank you Henri Nouwen, you have helped us see pain and losses more fully. And given us glimpse of care versus offering a cure.

“Father use us, if even feebly so in the hurts, heartaches and losses of those around us. Let us be friends and servants who genuinely care.”

Published December 10, 2014

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Kathy Ferguson Litton

Kathy lives in Mobile, Alabama, with her husband Ed, pastor of Redemption Church. Both lost former spouses in car accidents, and God uniquely gave them new love and life together in 2009. Kathy enjoyed 26 years of life and ministry alongside Rick Ferguson. She has three children and ten grandchildren. Presently she serves as Director of Planting Spouse Development.