To say grief is complex is an understatement. It is difficult to experience, hard to process, and challenging to know what to do or say when someone you love is in the midst of it. In recent months, so many of you have shared your stories of heartbreak and grief with us. We want you to know that we see you, we hear you, and we are praying for you. If you, your church, or someone you know is walking through grief, we want to help. That’s why we created a completely free resource with encouragement, practical guidance, and suggestions of more thorough resources to help you on this journey.
The Lifeway Women Grief Resource is here to help you as you lead through grief, grieve yourself, and support friends or family who are grieving. During the coming weeks, we will be sharing sections of this resource on our blog. You can click here to download the complete PDF or scroll down to view the full resource at the bottom of this page.
Leading Through Grief
On June 2, 2002, Justin Sullivan was honored as The Daily Oklahoman’s baseball player of the year. As a graduating senior from high school and active in our student ministry, everyone celebrated his wonderful accomplishment. Little did anyone know, the next day Justin would be killed when the back wheels of a semi-tractor trailer broke off, crossed the center median, and killed him instantly.
As a staff member of my church, I arrived at the hospital and found myself ministering to family, to students, and to parents who were all grieving. In the days ahead, I realized nothing had prepared us to walk together through grief as a community. It’s been close to 20 years since that loss marked us as a church and as church leaders. We found comfort in knowing Justin was with the Lord, but there are still days when the grief still seems fresh.
Grieving in community and knowing how to lead in the midst of grief is not a breakout seminar we often desire to take as leaders, but if COVID-19 has taught us anything, it’s that we are watching and experiencing grief in new ways. And while many of us find closure and comfort by celebrating life through a corporate funeral or service, this, too, has been stripped away as families have grieved in isolation or without saying goodbye with traditional methods.
There are no simple steps to leading through grief because each situation is unique. There is no time table of grief. There is not a place on your to-do list you can check off and say it’s done. But, as a leader, you can have a plan and be a learner. Through the power of the Holy Spirit, you can grieve together as a community of believers who have hope and have a heavenly Father who is always present.
Learn to Lament
Lament provides a language for entrusting God with our sorrow. When we find Jesus at the tomb of Lazarus in John 11, we find Mary and Martha surrounded by others who were consoling them in their time of grief. Jesus, when He saw Mary crying, cried with her. Jesus experienced grief with Mary, weeping with her. When we lament, we provide structure for expressing our sorrow to God. It allows us to process sorrow honestly and invites us to hold on to hope.
This morning I watched a coworker share her sorrow at the impending death of a family member. While the rest of us were unable to wrap our arms around her in comfort, I saw the faces of the rest of us on Zoom as we wiped away tears and grieved along with her. We prayed and we asked God to give comfort.
There are several stages of lament you can implement as you minister to others. First, acknowledge that we bring our sorrows to God. Second, through prayer, pour out your complaint. Describe your hurt, your heartache, and even your anger with transparency. Help others understand that God hears our lament. Third, ask the Lord to respond to your grief. Invite Him into your pain. Fourth, express your trust. State what you hope is possible, with what you trust God for or what you wish you could trust Him for—even if you’re not there yet.
Remember, it’s important to grieve in community and not in isolation.
Learn to Listen
A beautiful example of grieving as a community is found in Acts 9. Luke describes a poignant scene of women who were grieving the death of their friend Dorcas. Verse 36 tells us that, “She was always doing good works and acts of charity.” When Dorcas died, Peter arrived on the scene and found the women gathered together, and they showed him some of the garments she had made.
As a leader, one of the greatest gifts you can give to someone who is grieving is the sharing of stories and listening to the memories of those who have gone to be with the Lord. Maybe you have been touched by the life of the person who has died. Make a point to express what that person meant to you. Celebrate their life with the gift of stories and listening to other people share their stories. When Justin was tragically killed, prior to his funeral, our student pastor scheduled a time with our students. For more than two hours, they sang together and shared personal stories. It was medicine to the souls of those who were present and a gift to those who were struggling with why God would allow such suffering.
As you listen, remember that grief is not something to “get over” but something you “get through.” Allow those who are grieving to know they are seen by Jesus. And remember that your presence is powerful. Luke 7 describes Jesus’ encounter with the Widow from Nain. As He traveled by the gate, He saw the body of her son being carried out. Verse 13 reminds us that “When the Lord saw her, he had compassion on her.” As leaders, our compassion and listening skills are as important as any words you say.
Keep Being a Learner
If leaders are learners, then leaders must learn a better theology of grief. If you are in ministry for any length of time, this will be an important aspect of your ministry. You will be called to sudden moments of crisis and you will be called to sit among those who are grieving the diagnosis of a lengthy illness. So, keep learning. Challenge yourself to read a book on grief, attend a conference, or gather your ministry team and make plans to provide help to those you serve. Help others know how their spiritual gifts edify the body, both in joyous times as well as times of grief. Encourage others to use their gifts and talents to support others in grief. Give them practical suggestions, whether it’s cooking a meal or writing a card.
Most of all, normalize the conversation around grief. Seek God’s direction and share in the sacred space of connecting with others who are hurting.
Kelly D. King is the Manager of Magazines/Devotional Publishing and Women’s Ministry Training for Lifeway Christian Resources. She is the author of Ministry to Women: The Essential Guide for Leading Women in the Local Church. You can hear Kelly at Lifeway’s You Lead events that are held in several cities around the country or listen to her co-host the Marked Podcast with Elizabeth Hyndman.
A Grace Disguised by Jerry Sittser
A Severe Mercy: A Story of Faith, Tragedy, and Triumph by Sheldon Vanauken
A Grief Observed by C.S. Lewis.
Dark Clouds Deep Mercy by Mark Vroegop
Untangling Emotions by Alasdair Groves & Winston Smith.
Healing the Wounds of Trauma by Trauma Healing Institute
Recovering From the Losses of Life by Norm Wright
Loss Workshop by Christian Counseling & Education Foundation (CCEF)
CenterForLoss.com – books and devotionals by Alan Wolfelt
Side by Side by Ed Welch
Stumbling toward Wholeness by Andrew Bauman
Colors of Goodbye by September Vaudrey
Choosing to SEE by Marybeth Chapman
Through a Season of Grief by Bill Dunn and Kathy Leonard