Churches are expected to care and support their bereaved family members as their seasons of grief are often a difficult time with significant spiritual implications. I recently visited a number of churches in Peninsular Malaysia and interviewed both the Senior Pastors and their bereaved family members to research on the adequacy and effectiveness of grief support available in our churches. Interviews were conducted involving small and large churches in and outside the Klang Valley and across 8 different denominations.
The findings revealed that while our churches are adequate and effective in performing the bereavement services, the same cannot be said with regards to the longer term care and support of the bereaved. For a start, all the pastors I interviewed believe that the church has a pastoral responsibility towards their bereaved family members but only 67% of them think bereavement home visitations are important. In reality, only 58% of the bereaved are visited by their church leaders while only 37% of them are visited two times or more. Overall, 79% of the bereaved think that the number of these visits is inadequate while 87% rated these visits as ineffective in helping them. The sad consequence is that more than 50% of them turn to non-Christian relatives and friends for comfort and support.
The reality is that most churches rely on their cell group structure as the first line of care and support for the bereaved and seldom monitor its adequacy and effectiveness unless something is brought to their attention. However, it is also found that most of the bereaved do not freely open up to their cell groups with regards to the more private and significant matters concerning their grief. At the same time, they do not voice their concerns and dissatisfactions over the care and support they received to the church leadership. This resulted in a widening and silent gap that is risking neglect in the churches’ pastoral responsibility towards the bereaved. Bridging this gap will involve transforming the pastors’ attitudes, committing to longer term home visitations, improving on the effectiveness of grief counselling encounters with the bereaved and structuring the other aspects of grief support.
Transforming the Pastors’ Attitudes
The “no pressing need yet” attitude on grief support is common among Senior Pastors. This argument is lacking in pastoral prudence because we never know when someone in our midst might die and we can be caught unprepared how best to reached out to those who grieve over the loss of their loved ones. Countless people are dying suddenly from accidents and sicknesses while natural disasters can strike without warning. At the same time, church members are aging by each year. Hence, churches should put something in place ahead of such need which will inevitably arise as a matter of time.
The benefit of this is not just to ensure that all the bereaved family members of the church are adequately and effectively cared for and supported. Indeed, the church members will be pleased to know that they have a truly caring church. We see in the Scriptures in Acts 6:1-7 that when the Early Church put in place a proper system to take care of the Grecian widows in their midst, even God was pleased and He blessed them corporately with quantitative and qualitative church growth. Hence, instead of relying on spontaneous care and support arising out of personal or structural relationships, it is better to work out something more comprehensive and systematic like a written policy and checklist on grief support.
If the leadership of a church have a more balanced approach and not pay less attention to pastoral care, then they should educate and motivate the church staff and members to be more caring towards the needs of others, including the grief support of their bereaved family members. Besides practising pastoral care for the grieving and encouraging the congregation to support the bereaved, there should also be periodic preaching on the subject of death and related topics. At the same time, pastors can recommend a book or two on bereavement for church members to read. Events like the death of a respected leader give opportunities for pastors to speak on issues about bereavement and grief support.
Longer Term Home Visitations
Two-thirds of the bereaved are not visited by their church leaders beyond 2 months of their bereavement. However, up to 83% of the bereaved indicated they are still struggling with their grief 6 months after their losses while only 25% still say so after 2 years. Altogether, 83% of the bereaved would like their church leaders to visit them for 6 months or longer. Hence, home visitations should rightly cover at least 6 months, beginning with fortnightly or monthly visits and ending with quarterly visits up to 2 years, or as preferred by the bereaved family.
From the psychological or thanatological perspective, a small proportion of the bereaved can fail to grieve properly due to relational, circumstantial, historical, personality and social factors. When this happens, what results can be complicated, abnormal or pathological grief which has been described as “the intensification of grief to the level where the person is overwhelmed, resorts to maladaptive behaviour, or remains interminably in the state of grief without progression of the mourning process towards completion. Numerous clinical studies have supported the existence of complicated grief.
The mental health community uses the current edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of the American Psychiatric Association (DSM IV-R) for diagnosis of mental disorders. At present, the DSM does not formally recognize any pattern of grief as pathological. Nevertheless, there is a movement over the last 15 years to create a new diagnostic category called Complicated Grief. The criteria for the psychiatric diagnosis of Complicated Grief proposed for DSM-V tell us that unless certain symptom disturbances lasted for at least 6 months, then there is no cause for concern and the caregiver should continue to care and support the bereaved. In other words, the bereaved should be visited for at least 6 months before we know if anyone should be referred for professional help.
Improving on Effectiveness
Two-thirds of the pastors who were interviewed admitted that when they visited the bereaved, they were there mostly “to give a listening ear” and so they ended up talking on general matters with them. To the bereaved, just being there, casual talk and praying for them is not good enough. The common perception among the bereaved is that most of the church leaders who visited them do not know what to do. In other words, if the church leader does not go deep into their emotions to help them to express their losses, resolve their emotional, spiritual and practical issues and find meaning and purpose which matches their theology with their loss experience, then the visit is not productive.
The bereaved wants guidance and instructions to help them get through their grieving process. Pastors and leaders can only give guidance and instructions to help the bereaved get through their grieving process if they have some knowledge and skills in grief counselling. Hence, it is important that they have training in grief counselling. Sadly, only 42% of the pastors interviewed had attended some form of basic teachings in this area.
One other way churches can be more effective in helping the bereaved is through Grief Support Groups. Grief Support Groups serve the purpose of both emotional support and education on grief management. One of the main benefits is indeed the mutual encouragement of bereaved persons who are fellow travellers along the same journey of grief. The sharing of the experiences of those who are more advanced in their recovery give comfort and hope to others who are still raw in their grief and struggling in confusion and self-doubt.
Structuring the other Aspects
The church leadership and cell groups can play an essential role in ensuring that financial, domestic and legal/administrative help is available to the bereaved family members when needed. From my interviews, it is found that some of these help are offered from structured provisions but most of them take place as responses to the needs as and when they arise. It is best that such help be structured in advance and not done on an adhoc basis so that the church is not caught unprepared when the need arises. If these matters are not thought through in advance, then there will be inconsistency in what is offered and this may give rise to comparisons and discontentment among the bereaved family members. Worse still, the help may not be forthcoming promptly as it may take some time for the church leadership to make their decisions.
Grief over the loss of a loved one affects every dimension of the life of the bereaved and it is only by listening to them attentively, being sensitive to their needs, and responding to help them within our own limitations, that they can be adequately and effectively cared for. From my findings, the top most desired list of the bereaved is for their church leader to spend more time with them without them having to ask. The second top-most desired list of the bereaved is for the church to have a ready list of persons whom they can turn to for domestic help. As to what aspects of grief support services that should be given more priority when there are limitations in finance, manpower or other resources, it is necessary to find out what the bereaved family members in each church want the most.
The Scriptures in 2 Cor 1:3, 4 say that since our God is compassionate, we are to comfort hurting people with His comfort and so, mourn with those who mourn (Rom 12:15b). According to Jam 1:27, if we want to be a true Christians, we must visit widows and the fatherless in their time of distress. By implication, our compassion should extend to all bereaved persons who are hurting. The Greek word for visit (episkeptomai) is not just to go and cheer them up but also bring them comfort and relief. Furthermore, the Word of God in Jam 1:27 urges not just the church leaders to do this but it is addressed to all Christians. Hence, suitable church volunteers should be mobilised and trained for grief support as a faithful practice within the body of Christ. Such ministry teams will lighten the burden of the pastors and leaders towards the bereaved family members of their churches as well as reach out to the community through grief counselling as mission for Christ.
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- Ng, E., The TIME Approach to Grief Support, An Easy Technique for Every Christian (Enumclaw: WinePress Publishing, 2011).
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Edmund Ng, D.Min, is Malaysia’s first and only Certified Thanatologist (Grief Therapist) with postgraduate qualifications in Ministry (UK), Counselling (Australia) and Thanatology (USA). A former church elder and pastor, he is presently the President of NACC Malaysia and Resident Director of GGP Outreach, a ministry that journeys alongside grieving bereaved persons. He has published a book entitled The TIME Approach to Grief Support.