“The Living Know That They Shall Die”- But Their Survivors Do Not Have A Clue: Three Ways to Minister to the Bereaved
“For the living know that they shall die, but the dead know not anything”. Ecclesiastes 9:5. That text is one of the first texts that any Seventh-day Adventist uses in a Bible study or an Adventist Pastor uses in any kind of sermon on the state of the dead. I know I have used it probably hundreds of times.
Everyone knows that everyone that they know is going to die (unless Jesus comes back first). But when it comes to a loved one, virtually no one is ever prepared to lose that loved one-even when they know it is going to happen.
I have lost both of my parents-my father, almost exactly 19 years ago, and my mother, going on 8 years ago. In neither case was their passing entirely unexpected (though that was less true for me of my mother. She had dodged the bullet so many times; I thought that she might have another comeback in there). My father was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer and passed away less than 3 months after he was diagnosed. He put up a good fight; my father died the way people like me preach that believing Seventh-day Adventist Christians are supposed to die: Absolutely sure that God was in control and that He would raise him up in the Second Resurrection (my mother was like that as well).
But very shortly after my father’s diagnosis, it was clear that at least in this life, the cancer was going to win and that my father was going to die. I still remember sleeping on the floor next to my father’s bed in the final days of his life and hearing his very labored breathing-knowing that soon, that labored breathing would be no breathing at all.
But when that did happened, I was not really prepared for it-even though I absolutely knew that-absent a major miracle-my father was going to die. I had no clue about what it was like to lose a loved one, even though I knew what was coming and I had ministered to many people who had been in the very same situation I was in then.
Once upon a time, I had a very enlightening but very sad and poignant conversation with someone who had lost a loved one. That conversation helped me to realize again that not only did the survivors of the deceased not have a clue about what they were about to go through in the loss of a loved ones, but many of the people who are trying to help them go through that do not have a clue, either. Over the years, in talking to bereaved, I have collected a series of stories of people saying clueless things that range from unhelpful (things that I know that I have said-especially before I lost my parents and learned from hard experience that some things like” Just call me if you need anything” are not as helpful as the person who said that probably intended) to outright cruel-like the lady whose husband had terminal cancer at a young age and a church member asked her when they came to visit what did her husband do that caused the Lord to allow him to have terminal cancer.
Here are some things I have learned from my own experience of losing my parents-and from walking with others who have lost loved ones. First a few things not to say:
- “I know how you feel”. You probably don’t-especially, if you are blessed enough not to have lost anyone close to you as yet. And-even if you have, there is still only so much you can know. For example, I have an idea of what it feels to lose a parent. But I have no idea of what it feels to lose a spouse, a sibling or a child. And-I hope I never find out.
Moreover, I know how it felt to lose my parents. But that does not mean I completely understand what it feels like for you to lose your parent. There are some commonalities but in the end, grief is such an individual thing. My siblings and I all lost the same set of parents but we processed our grief very differently.
- Then there is the ever popular, the aforementioned “You just call me if you need anything.” I have been guilty of saying that-especially, before I lost my parents.
At least at first, the person who just lost their loved one may have trouble doing much more than getting out of bed, getting dressed and putting one foot in front of the other. To expect them to pick up the phone, call someone and say, “You remember when you told me to call you if I needed anything? Well, I need…” That places the burden on the bereaved-which is the exact opposite of your intent.
A better response is to pick a need and fill it the best way that you can. I remember someone sending us a book of stamps to help with the postage for all of the thank you notes we sent (if you cannot afford that, offer to address the envelopes). Find out what their favorite restaurant is and get them a gift card or offer to take them out to that restaurant. If you know a favorite dish, fix it.
My mother passed away three days before our Camp Meeting began when I was Conference President. We always had a huge dinner each Sabbath for our Camp Meeting guest speaker, whatever family the speaker may have, our family, some friends-typically, there were thirty or forty people. My wife, my mother, my mother-in-law and some friends would come together and fix the food for both weekends.
Obviously, this time, my mother was gone. But the people of Huntsville First Church and others were so kind and brought food every day to the extent that we did not have to cook that entire week. There is always something that you can do. Don’t ask the bereaved to tell you what that something is-ask the Lord, and then, do it.
- Don’t try to be philosophical or try to explain why the deceased “deceased”-especially, if they died tragically or young. Sometimes in this life, there is simply no explanation-at least, not now and not here. And you rarely make things better by trying-and failing- to explain the unexplainable-especially, if the bereaved doesn’t ask you to do so.
I remember one time a close friend of mine was going through a very difficult time. I said to them, “I really do not have anything brilliantly pastoral to say” (News flash: Pastors do not always know what to say in times of crisis-at least, I don’t).
I shall never forget my friend’s response to my confession of my helplessness, “I don’t need you to be pastoral. I just need you to be my friend”.
Sometimes, the best thing to say is as little as possible. Sometimes, the best thing we can do is just be there. You do not have to be there long; just be there. Let them know that neither they nor their pain is forgotten by you. Everyone does not agree with this method but I like to send texts because it allows the person I am trying to be “there” for to respond to me when they are ready to respond.
We all remember the story of Job. He loses everything-including, all of his children-at one time. Imagine that funeral. Then, he ends up covered with boils.
To his friend’s credit, they come and visit Job-the Bible doesn’t mention that anyone else did that… They sat with him, silently, for seven days. The fact that they hung with Job in his time of loss is to their credit. To their discredit, after seven days, they opened their mouths and started trying to explain the unexplainable. That turned out to be a pretty bad idea. They didn’t have a clue-no one did.
In fact, the only way we have a clue about why what happened to Job happened, is because God explained it-in His own time and way. Maybe that is the best way to explain the unexplainable. To trust God to do it, in His own time and in His own way. He knows how to do it.
And it is a good thing that God knows how to handle those kinds of things. Because I have discovered the hard way that much of the time, I don’t have a clue.
By Elder Dana Edmond