Grief comes in many forms and for many reasons. The most common event associated with grief is the death of a loved one, but there are many reasons your church members may experience the pain of loss. No matter what prompts their feelings of despondence, anger or guilt, there are a few things you need to know to offer comfort effectively.
Know How To Recognize Grief
People respond in a variety of ways when they experience loss. Expression of extreme emotions is common. They may get angry at God or other people, and this anger can manifest as yelling, avoidance, destruction of property or other behaviors associated with lashing out. Grieving persons are also likely to show continuing signs of sadness, such as crying or loss of interest in activities they previously enjoyed. To further complicate matters, the grief process is not linear. Its stages can occur in cycles or at random. Someone may seem as if he or she is moving past denial one day only to circle back around to it a month or two later. Good counsel requires that you learn to recognize grief no matter how it appears.
Know How To Listen Effectively
One of the best things you can do for someone who is grieving is offer consistent listening. When you listen well, you give up control of the situation or its outcome. During the listening process, you are not trying to lead the grieving person to a certain conclusion or behavior. You simply acknowledge what the other person has to say and make sure you understand him or her correctly. Express your concern, not your advice.
Know What Not To Say
It's not always easy to know what to say to those who are grieving. It's important to know what not to say, though. Avoid sentiments that dismiss feelings, such as well-meaning encouragement to move on with their lives or count their blessings. Keep in mind that they may be particularly angry at God, so coming to God's defense by suggesting that the loss could be part of God's plan or assuring them that the person they miss is with God is unlikely to have the effect you intend. No one says the right thing all the time, but pastors should work hard to avoid common pitfalls so that they can offer genuine comfort.
Know When To Offer Practical Help
Sadness may not be the only outcome of a loss. Losing a partner also means losing out on all the practical ways she or he contributed to the household. The loss of a spouse can also have significant financial drawbacks. Listen for hints that the grieving person is struggling with everyday tasks or paying bills. It's nice to have someone to talk to, but if you or other church members can pick up some of the slack the loss left behind, that can be a tangible way to bring some peace to those who desperately need it.
Know Your Own Limits
You want to be available to assist members in any way you can, but sometimes that means knowing where your strengths end and then directing them to better resources. You wouldn't try to perform surgery without a medical license, and it doesn't make any more sense to offer therapy to those with ongoing depression or anxiety if you do not have the training to do so. Establish partnerships with mental health specialists in your area so that you are in a position to refer members to qualified professionals who can offer help beyond your own expertise.
At some point, the members of your congregation are going to experience the pain of loss. When grief arises, knowing how to comfort them can help them work through the pain.