Death, Mourning, and Pastoral Care

Today was one of those days when you just don’t know what to do. This morning I received word that a friend’s father had died suddenly. Within an hour of that message, a member of my church also faced the same reality. I shared with my wife that there is never a good time to hear news like this. As the person receiving the news about the news I was reminded again of how fragile, transitory, and temporary our journey upon this orb called Earth really is.

Death is a violation of our Souls

I hate death. It is the greatest enemy of our peace of mind. Those who do not think of death–either their own or that of others–live with a carelessness that is both unhealthy and dangerous. Then there are those who cannot get away from a morbid and fatalistic way of thinking about life. Both of these extremes are not helpful. We have to find a way to find balance when contemplating the finality of life.

I did not always believe what I am about to say. But, my thoughts have been impacted by my own experiences and being a witness to how my time on earth is being marked by the growth of my own children. If we are going to make the most of this life we must live in light of our own mortality. I may not like the idea that I will not live forever, but this should not be a hindrance to evaluating my life and making priorities based on the finitude of the same.

What this means is that we must make honest evaluations of who we are, who we want to be, and what we have to do to reduce the discrepancy between the two. Death is the grand equalizer. It puts all of humanity upon equal footing. There is no escaping death’s grasp or results. One day death will take us. The one question that lingers in my mind on days like today is this: When my time is up will I have lived in a manner meriting thi great gift of life?

We all have to ask ourselves this question. If we do not we risk squandering our lives on things that are vacuous and limited.

The truth of the matters is that death is a violation of our souls. It grips us and threatens to hold us captive. This does not need to be so. The Bible offers us a powerful reminder that God has dealt death a death blow. Death has been defeated. It has been stripped of its power and emptied of its venom. Our hope is not found in our ability, but in Christ’s capability to infuse our lives with his own. A mortal life must be sustained by the eternal life of the Son of God. Without his life in us, there is no life for us.

Mourning is a process

I want to offer a word of advice to those who, like me, are hearers of the news about the news. Please stop saying stupid things to those in mourning. The depth of sorrow felt is, at the very least, in proportion to the love felt for the one who was lost in death. If the one who has experienced the loss loved someone for three decades of life, do not expect them get over it or move on in a month, or a year, or whatever other time frame you think is appropriate.

Please, just shut up! Mourning is a process and the emptiness that is left is not something that can be quantified or timed. Yes, we should be on the look out for signs of prolonged depression and sadness. We should stay close enough to know when the one mourning is struggling to make sense of what has happened. We should offer words of comfort and reminders of our love for them. What we should avoid are assumptions of how long the wound a death makes will take to heal in a person’s life.

We should stop and listen more than trying to think of something to say. There is nothing to say. The death of a loved one cannot be truncated into the trite and religious platitudes so many times offered because we don’t know what else to say.

Pastoral Care is doing more by doing less

In my first official church job, I learned some valuable lessons regarding pastoral care that have helped me in the years since. My job as a pastor is just to be present when everyone else just wants to leave. One of the unspoken truths of ministry is that we will encounter people on the worst days and most difficult moments of their lives.

This is not a call to be a superman. This is a call to humble sacrifice. To mourn with those who mourn. It truly is one of the most difficult aspects of ministry. There will be time to speak the truth about salvation and heaven; hope and joy; peace and God’s promises. There will be time to be the “preacher”. The truth of the matter is that in times of mourning what most people need is just another fellow traveler willing to stop.

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I have been thinking about these things all day. I just wanted to put some of my thoughts down before the feelings dissipated.

How have you learned to deal with death and mourning?

What advise would you give to a pastor about caring for those grieving a loss?

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