Counseling the Grieving

Rev. Terpstra is pastor of the Protestant Reformed Church of South Holland, Illinois.

Introduction

The pastoral ministry of officebearers to the grieving is a vitally important work in the church of Jesus Christ. It is so, first of all, because in ministering to the grieving we are to represent and be the instruments of the God whose work it is to heal the broken in heart and bind up their wounds (literally “griefs,” Ps. 147:3). Specifically, as it is the ministry of Christ “to bind up the, broken hearted” and “to comfort all that mourn” (Is. 61:1-3Luke 4:18, 19), so it is our ministry to do the same.

Secondly, this work is important because God’s people need us in the hour of grief. The time of sorrow is one of the most troubling and trying periods in believers’ lives. It is also a time when Satan can buffet them with the greatest temptations. We who fill the offices of Christ must be there to help the saints in this time of great need.

Thirdly, this work is so important because of its implications for us who minister to the grieving. In their book Comforting the Bereaved, Warren and David Wiersbe address this in these words:

If his ministry of the Word is to be effective week after week he must know what it means to minister to broken hearts. The pastor who is isolated and insulated, locked up in his study, is robbing himself and his people of some of the most enriching experiences of ministerial life…. Phillips Brooks said that the growing pastor must experience higher heights of joy and deeper depths of sorrow; and this is true…. Our church members quickly forget our sermons, but they remember our kindnesses, especially those dark hours when we were walking with them through the valley. Many pastors confess that they have learned more about the grace of God at an open casket than they ever learned from a profound theology book (p. 6).

In the light of these things it is evident that we must be involved in counseling God’s grieving people.

The Reality and Process of Grief

Grief is a very real and painful experience in the lives of God’s people. All of God’s children feel the hurt of sorrow at one time or another in their lives. The Word of God teaches us that, since the fall of man into sin, sorrow is an integral part of our lives (cf. Gen. 3:16, 17Ps. 90:10). And the Bible does not hide this reality from us, but, throughout, records the examples and experiences of grief in the lives of God’s children. Who can forget the sorrows of Jacob and of Job and of David? Also our Lord walked the path of grief; He was in fact the Man of sorrows, acquainted with all our grief (Is. 53:3). If God can be grieved (Gen. 6:6Eph. 4:30), and His people are in His image, they will feel grief as well. If the children of God live in this vale of tears and shadow of suffering and death (and they do), they will taste the agonies of mourning.

Grief is also an extremely complex emotion and state. It consists of a combination of sadness, anguish, anxiety, fear, doubt, distress, loneliness, helplessness, and even despair. It may be deep and prolonged, or relatively shallow and brief. It may be a heavy burden, or a relatively light load. It may be attended by a host of other difficulties, or be a singularly focused struggle. Because of this it is easy for the counselor to fall into being too simplistic on the one hand, or too probing and profound on the other hand. Counseling the grieving requires the wisdom of Christ and His Word.

It is also important to realize that the causes of grief are manifold according to Scripture and our experience. No doubt the greatest and most common cause of grief is death. The loss of a loved one, whether a wife (Gen. 23:2), or a husband, or a child (Gen. 37:35Job 1:19, 20II Sam. 18:33II Sam. 19:1, 2Matt. 2:17, 18), or a father (Gen. 50:10), or a mother (Gen. 24:67), or a close friend (II Sam. 1:11, 12, 17 ff.); whether expected or unexpected, brings on a time of intense pain, and sadness.

But death is by no means the only cause of grief. Sorrow is also brought on by sickness and its results (II Kings 20:3Ps. 38:6Ps. 42:3); childlessness (I Sam. 1:7, 8, 15, 16); wayward children (Gen. 26:35Prov. 17:25); the hurt of friends and relatives (Ps. 31Ps. 69); persecution (Ps. 38Ps. 69); loss of property (Job 1:13 ff.) or work; divorce or separation; sin (II Cor. 7:10); the unconverted state of family or friends (Rom. 9:2), etc. It is good to know these various causes and examples, so that we may watch for them among God’s people and be ready to bring help and comfort to them.

It is frequently stressed in connection with this subject that grief is a process which is made up of several stages. I am not going to emphasize this, since others have dealt with this before (cf. the articles “God’s Work in Our Grief,” by Pastor W. Bekkering, Dec. 1, 1990; and “Ministering to the terminally Ill,” by Pastor M. DeVries, Mar. 1, 1993 in the Standard Bearer).

There are two things I would like to stress in this connection however. First, it is important to remember that the saints’ times of grieving are also part of God’s sovereign plan and purposes, just as the causes of this grieving are. Ecclesiastes 3:1, 4 reminds us of this: “To every thing there is a season, and a time to every purpose under the heaven: . . . A time to weep, and at time to laugh; a time to mourn, and a time to dance.” The grieving must know that their process of grief, including its length and depth and details, is all in the Father’s hands, appointed by Him and carried out by Him. And second, because of this, the saints’ time of grieving is meant to be a process of growth. Mildred Tengbom, in her book Grief for a Season, writes of this, while also cautioning us about thinking too strictly of the period of grief:

In grieving, we just don’t pass from one clearly defined stage to another: grieving isn’t that orderly. Some mornings we may feel able to accept what has happened, but before noon we’re plunged into despair again. Some have described grieving as going down a road that twists and turns, climbs hills, descends to valleys, and crosses rivers and plains. Others have compared bereavement to going through a long, dark tunnel. Whatever metaphor we use, let’s remember it’s important not to get stuck along the way. Grieving is meant to be a growing process (p. 35).

Another Christian author described this growth in these terms: “Things happen to me in order that things should happen in me . . . so that things could happen through me” (quoted in Yet Will I Trust Him, by P. Rankin). Job’s words in Job 23:10 bring these two ideas together, “But he knoweth the way that I take: when he hath tried me, I shall come forth as gold.” That is what we have to assure God’s grieving people.

Special Problems in Grieving

There are often special problems (sins, weaknesses, struggles) associated with the time of grieving and it is important that we who counsel the grieving know these problems. The emotion and state of grief is seldom found alone; it is almost always attended by other struggles and difficulties. The Scriptures openly speak of these things as well.

Those who grieve are often filled with questions and fears and regrets. They wonder why God has brought this suffering and loss into their lives, why it came at that particular time, and what God’s purpose is in it. They can worry about the destiny and state of their departed one and fear their own readiness for the end of their lives. They are afraid of going on in life and of how they will make it. They can have endless questions about what heaven is like and what their loved one is doing. They can be filled with worry and regret for not having spent more time with their loved one or for not having done enough for them.

Closely related to these experiences is the fact that the grieving often become filled with anger, bitterness, and complaining. It is striking that one of the Old Testament words for grief also has the element of anger associated with it (cf. kass in I Sam. 1:16 and Job 6:2). Those who are plunged into sorrow can lash out at friends and family and church- and at God. They can be severely critical of His people and of His circumstances, and fill their days with complaints (cf.Job 3Job 7:11Job 10:1Job 16:1 ff.; Ps. 55:2Ps. 77:3).

Further, those who grieve, especially following the loss of a loved one, are often overcome by severe loneliness. They miss deeply their departed one and long for him/ her to return. This loneliness is often provoked by the fact that shortly after the busyness of the funeral and the return to normalcy for everyone else, they are forgotten in their grief (Ps. 31:12Ps. 38:11Ps. 88:4, 5). The visits, cards, meals, and other special favors and attention come to an end, and they feel all alone in the community of the saints.

What is more, the pain of this loneliness can also be increased by the fact that God seems to be absent. Not only do they feel deeply the absence of their loved one, but they also feel that God is not there (Job 23:2, 8, 9;Ps. 77Ps. 88). What is more, and often due to the above mentioned experiences, those who are cast into a season of grief frequently become depressed and can even reach the point of despair. Of this too the Scriptures testify, as in I Kings 19:4Job 3:1 ff.; Psalm 77Ps. 88.

In addition to these things, the time of grieving may also be attended by extreme physical weariness and exhaustion and by sleeplessness and lack of appetite (cf. Ps. 6:6Ps. 31:10Ps. 38:8Ps. 102:4).

Comforting the Grieving

As was pointed out at the beginning, ours is the ministry of being Christ’s representatives and instruments to bind up broken hearts and to comfort those who mourn. The question we now face is, How is this to be done?

The first thing to be stressed in answer to this question is that we must truly show ourselves to be Christ’s representatives to His sorrowing and hurting people. By that I mean that we must be present with God’s people in their grief, that we must truly sympathize with them in their grief, and that we must reveal the compassion of God to them in their sorrow. More important, first of all, than anything we may say to the grieving is the fact that we convey genuine care for them. That implies that we must be there with them in their sorrow. We must go to be with them and stand with them in their dark hour of grief. Christ did that when He went to Bethany to be with Mary and Martha (John 11). The grieving today can no longer see and touch Christ, but us they can and must. The basic idea of the word for “comfort” in the New Testament is that of calling someone to your side. That is what we must do for the bereaved – call them to our side and reveal the presence of Christ to them. And let that presence be the presence of love and compassion. Further, we must sincerely share with them in their sorrow and suffering (sympathize). This will mean weeping with them that weep (Rom. 12:15John 11:35). This certainly means letting them tell us their grief, exactly how they feel, what they are experiencing. We must listen, as well as speak. A. Kuyper has some excellent thoughts on this essential aspect of comfort in his book In the Shadow of Death. In a chapter in which he criticizes the miserable comfort of Job’s three friends, he writes:

Words too can comfort. But one must go differently about it. First the eye must have spoken, and the expression of the face and the warm hand-clasp. And when thus the soul disclosed herself and drew breath again, then first a gentle, whispering word; and when thus the sorrowing soul herself begins to speak, then, yea, further conversation can follow; not with a little lesson learned by rote; not with reasoning ready-made for all who are in sorrow; but with the language of the heart. . ..To comfort is no hushing with soft talk, but suffering oneself with the sufferer; sharing distress with him who is distressed. With the troubled of soul feeling pain in your own heart. There is no comforting where there is no fellowship of heart with heart…. Love is the soul of all real comforting. Forgetting yourself. Thinking of the aggrieved one alone. Entering into the life of anguish. Living along with it (pp. 141-142).

The second thing which needs to be stressed in comforting the grieving is that the counselor must direct and lead them to God and His Son, Jesus Christ. He is after all their Comforter (II Cor. 1:3, 4) and Healer (Ps. 147:3), and the sovereign God of their salvation who works all things for their good (Rom. 8:28). Wee must show them and assure them from the Word of the presence of God with them in their sorrow (Ps. 23:4Ps. 34:18Is. 43:2Micah 7:8). We must show them and assure them from the Word of the power (sufficiency) of God to help them in their grief (Job 5:18Ps. 23:1-3Ps. 27:1, 10, 14Jer. 8:21, 22Jer. 31:25). We must show them and assure them of the sovereignty of God in their affliction (Job 1:21Job 13:15Ps. 31:15Ps. 37:5Ps. 39:9Rom. 8:28). We must direct them to the suffering and sorrow of Jesus Christ the Savior, showing them the example of this suffering and sorrow (Is. 53Lam. 1:12Matt. 26:37-42John 11:35Heb. 5:7, 8), the saving power of this suffering and sorrow (Is. 53Heb. 10I Pet. 2:24, 25), and the victory and fruit of this suffering and sorrow (Rom. 8:17, 18I Cor. 15II Cor. 4, 5I Thess. 4:13 ff.; I Pet. 4:13Rev. 7:17Rev. 21:4).

Thirdly, we who minister to the grieving can counsel and comfort them by directing them to the saints of the past who received God’s help and strength in their time of sorrow. We may point them to examples in the Bible (e.g., II Sam. 12:15 ff.; Ps. 30:5, 11Ps. 116:8Luke 7:12 ff.; I Kings 17:9 ff.) and to examples in the church. It is of great comfort to the sorrowing to know that others have walked the path of grief, and to see how they were helped and strengthened.

Finally, in counseling and comforting the grieving a few practical points are in order. First, let the grieving know that it is spiritually normal and even healthy for them to continue to have times of weeping over their loss and to have strong feelings of missing their departed one. Too often we can become impatient with the bereaved and leave the impression with them that they ought to be long over their grief. We must remember that grieving is a process and that it takes time for healing to take place. Second, we ought to continue to make regular visits to the grieving during their season of sorrow. It is easy to forget about them and their continued needs after the first few months, just as church members and relatives often do. But we must watch for their souls during the whole period and stay with them through the entire process. In these visits we ought to continue to listen to them, to bring the Word of God to bear upon their needs, and to talk with them openly of their loss, sharing our own memories and stories of their departed one with them. Third; we ought to give the grieving things to read. There are many excellent resources from which they may gain additional comfort and strength. A few examples are “God is Our Refuge and Strength” (South Holland PRC Evangelism booklet); “Our Only Comfort” (Southeast PRC Evangelism booklet); “Is There an Answer,” “Christians Grieve Too,” “Behind a Frowning Providence”- (Banner of Truth booklets); Comfort for Christians, by A. Pink (Baker); Trusting God, by J. Bridges (NavPress); Yet Will I Trust Him, by P. Rankin (Regal); Grief for u Season, by .M. Tengbom (Bethany); In the Shadow of Death, by A. Kuyper. (Eerdmans; 1929). Fourth, we ought to ensure that the church family continues to offer help to the grieving. That would include practical help such as meals, housecleaning, shopping, etc. But also, that the sorrowing are included; Sunday night visits, church outings, Bible studies, etc. This is especially important for the widows, who feel keenly their loneliness and helplessness. In some churches there is an organization of women who can see to this (e.g., “Helping Hands”); in their cases the deacons may take care of this.

Finally, and by way of summary, allow me to reproduce for you the Ten, Commandments for Comforters,” provided by Warren and David Wiersbe in their book Comforting the Bereaved:

1. Go to those who are bereaved as soon as possible, even if it is inconvenient for you. 

2. Be swift to hear, slow to speak and slow to react to words and feelings that may appear “un-Christian.” 

3. Do not try to explain everything. 

4. Share the promises of God. 

5. Avoid saying, “I know just how you feel.” Nobody will believe you, and the statement accomplishes nothing. 

6. Words often fail, so express yourself through a loving hug, a handshake, even a simple touch. Just being there is a ministry. 

7. Do not be afraid to “weep with those who weep.” 

8. Remember that grieving is a difficult process that takes time. Be patient with those who mourn and, try not to say, “Aren’t you over it yet?” 

9. Visit regularly during the weeks after the funeral.

10. Keep confidence. Don’t turn the experience into a sermon illustration, unless the family gives you permission (p. 44).