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The Rules of Grief

Jeff Olson —  October 28, 2013 — Leave a comment

Winding Road, by Ruben I, Creative Commons/flickrOver the past couple of years, as I’ve struggled to figure out what a world without a mom and a dad looks like, I’ve learned and relearned a few things about grieving that a griever and someone who is trying to care for someone in their grief may find helpful.

I’ve learned that the first rule of grieving is that there are no rules. Grieving is neither neat nor orderly. There is no clearly defined path or timetable to follow. Different aspects of grief (the painful separation, disbelief, anger, guilt, hopelessness, etc.) fade in and out of our hearts with no discernible pattern. And there is no way of knowing how many times we will experience any particular aspect or so-called “stage” of grief.

I’m learning that just because we feel or wrestle with something once doesn’t mean we will never do so again. Most people experience several recurring feelings and questions as they grieve, sometimes as if it were for the first time.

Since watching both of my parents draw their last breaths, I’ve been reminded again that it’s okay to grieve. As King Solomon observed, there is a time for everything, including a time to weep” and “a time to mourn” (Ecclesiastes 3:4).

No matter what aspect of grief wells up inside of us, I’m learning that it is important to give ourselves permission to feel and express it. It’s important to let the feelings and thoughts come—raw and unfiltered—and to put words to them. William Shakespeare rightly noted, “Give sorrow words. The grief that does not speak . . . bids it [the heart] break.”

As crazy as it makes me feel sometimes, I’m learning that I need to mourn. According to Jesus, comfort awaits the griever (Matthew 5:4). I’m learning that leaning into the pain of loss opens me up to lean on God and others for comfort.

Lastly, I’m learning that Paul was right when he wrote that Christians grieve with hope. It is the hope of seeing our loved ones again when Jesus returns that helps to make unbearable loss more bearable (1 Thessalonians 4:13-17).

To learn more about helping folks in the throes of grief, tune into our upcoming Webinar, Shepherding Others Through Loss, on November 6, 2013, at 2 p.m. EST.



Angel of Grief by Mike Schaffner, Creative Commons/flickr

Sometimes there are no words. There are only tears and hugs. Sometimes the best answer to the question “Why?” is, “I don’t know.” And sometimes goodbyes aren’t forever.

Every pastor learns these lessons at some point in his or her ministry. Most of us learn them on the fly or from a wise sage who through long years of faithful service has learned how to care for the grieving well. More often than not we learn these lessons by watching, doing, struggling, and failing. Classroom lectures often fall short when people’s lives are falling apart.

I’ve learned most of what I know about pastoral care by trial and error. Lots of trying and lots of error. I think I got it wrong more than I got it right. Walking into Billi and Bob’s house just minutes after Bob died, I had no idea what I was supposed to do. But out of that experience I learned that sometimes caring is more about being rather than doing.

I learned it the day I drove to the hospital after receiving word that a young couple in our church had lost their baby. I learned that sometimes there is no good answer to the question of why, but that in the absence of answers there is still Jesus. And because of Jesus there is always hope.

I learned it in the wee hours of the morning when Leonard pulled off his oxygen mask to tell those of us standing around his hospital bed goodbye. As he went around the room that night, his message to me, his 33-year-old pastor, was, “I love you. I’ll see you later.” We all prayed the Lord’s Prayer. My dear friend began the prayer with us on earth and ended it with his Savior in heaven.

Sometimes there are no words . . . there is only presence. Sometimes there is no why . . . there is only Jesus. Sometimes a goodbye is not really a “goodbye” . . . it’s a see you later.”

With the incarnation, Jesus gave us His presence. At the cross, God the Son chose to enter into suffering, grief, and loss for our sakes. And with the empty tomb, He communicated a redemptive hope that trumps all loss, sorrow, grief, and pain.

Pastor, when there are no words, give them your presence. When there is no “why,” love them well in Jesus’ name. And when all hope seems lost, remind them that the empty tomb can turn “goodbye” into “see you later.”

Please join me and Dave Branon along with our host Tim Jackson for an upcoming webinar, Shepherding Others Through Loss, on November 6, 2013, at 2 p.m. EST. I believe we have some unique insight to share with pastors and ministry leaders. To register for the live event, click the link above. Our prayer is that you will be a little better equipped to enter into the pain of others and to bring the comforting presence of Jesus Christ into the darkness of grief.

Ambulance NSW by alexkess, Creative Commons/flickrWhen you’ve lost someone that matters to you, who do you turn to to help you navigate the next steps in your journey through grief? A friend? A family member? A pastor or spiritual leader?

People of faith often turn to their minister for help and comfort. Professional clergy and ministry volunteers alike—youth leaders, small-group leaders, Sunday school teachers, and Bible-study leaders—are often the first to hear about someone’s loss, making them “first responders” to those ambushed by grief.

For pastors and ministry leaders, being called upon as a first responder to grief situations is a common occurrence. Pastors are called at all hours of the day or night to come to the aid of those who are in the process of losing or have just lost a precious loved one. Pastors and ministry leaders are regularly put in positions of dealing with the death not only in their congregations but also in the surrounding communities. They are often asked to enter into the pain of strangers who are sorely in need of redemption during times of great loss. This is a remarkable act of courage commingled with love, empathy, and understanding.

In In MemoriamHenri Nouwen’s reflections on his mother’s death, he wrote: “I realized that sorrow is an unwelcome companion and that anyone who willingly enters into the pain of a stranger is truly a remarkable person” (p. 8).

Unfortunately, many ministry leaders have been ill-equipped for this kind of ministry. Theology, biblical interpretation, and preaching classes are insufficient preparation for the comfort and understanding required to connect and care for those being crushed under the weight of an irreversible loss.

Just ask Dave Branon and Dennis Moles. They know what it means to lose someone close to them. They’ve experienced comfort and have shared the comfort they’ve experienced (2 Corinthians 1:3-5).

Dave lost his 17-year-old daughter in a tragic car accident 11 years ago. While his pastors did a phenomenal job in helping Dave and his family through the first days of shock and the funeral, they were not trained on how to help them grieve.

Dennis invested a lot of time and energy into becoming a pastor, and yet when he found himself standing before a 24″ casket, he felt woefully unprepared to adequately care for the family who had just lost their precious child.

Both of these men have something unique to share with pastors and ministry leaders in our upcoming webinar, Shepherding Others Through Loss, on November 6, 2013, at 2 p.m. EST. To register for the live event, click the link above. Our prayer is that you will be a little better equipped to be that “remarkable person who willingly enters into the pain of others” to bring the comforting presence of Jesus Christ into the darkness of grief.

The Final Enemy

Tim Jackson —  April 27, 2012 — 10 Comments

“The last enemy to be destroyed is death.” (1 Cor. 15:26)

Those words have been stuck in my head these last two weeks–and the reminders are everywhere.

As you read in last week’s beautiful post by my fellow blogger Allison about the unexpected death of her sister Jodi, death still seems to be winning. The previous week marked what would have been my dad’s 86th birthday. We lost him last July, just 8 weeks after my mom lost her battle with cancer on June 3rd. Her birthday on May 1st is not a day I’m looking forward to, nor is Mother’s Day.

And as I write, my friend and co-worker in the cubicle next to me is watching vigil with his family gathered at the bedside of his elderly mother who is slipping away into eternity. The eerie parallels to last May for my family are uncomfortably familiar.

Death stinks! I hate it. It’s a ruthless enemy. I know it’s the last enemy to be destroyed before Jesus starts making everything new. I, for one, can’t wait.

In his vision of the way things will someday be, John wrote of it this way:

“‘He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away.’ He who was seated on the thrown said, ‘I am making everything new!’ Then he said, ‘Write this down, for these words are trustworthy and true.'” (Rev. 21:4-5)

The real deal is that someday, death will be decisively crushed under the heel of Jesus Christ, the One who tasted death for us all so that we too can share in His victory dance.

“‘Death has been swallowed up in victory. Where, O death, is your victory? Where, O death, is your sting.’ The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law. But thanks be to God! He gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.” (1 Cor. 15:54-57)

So, until that day when we will dance on the grave of death with our Lord, let’s embrace one another with words of comfort, prayers of support and acts of compassion in our times of loss, sorrow and grief.

For more on facing death, check out Michael Wittmer’s The Last Enemy.

Emotions–Good or Bad?

Jeff Olson —  February 23, 2012 — 6 Comments

In his book Beautiful Outlaw, John Eldredge points out that it was “God who gave us a sense of humor.” He goes on to ask, “Do you really think Jesus came to take it away?”

Of course, the answer is no way! Jesus was hardly dry and humorless. But Eldredge’s question got me to thinking about emotions in general – are they good or are they bad.

Emotions often get a bad rap, but the fact that Jesus was deeply moved by a close friend’s death show that He didn’t come to take them away (John 11:33-36). Emotions are a legitimate part of being made in the image of a God who feels emotions –“The LORD was grieved that he had made man on the earth, and his heart was filled with pain.” –Genesis 6:6.

As God’s image bearers, it is good and right for us to feel the full range of emotions. In fact, it is a mistake to bottle up one’s emotions. This is a form of denial that can keep us from learning important things about ourselves from what we feel.

Strong emotions can be a signal that something inside of us needs serious attention—maybe a need for love and comfort or something unholy in us that must be owned and confessed.

So pay attention to your feelings.

God might be using them to show you something important!

Hiding behind Humor

Jeff Olson —  January 20, 2012 — 7 Comments

Hunter Adams, a physician whose life was the basis for the 1998 film Patch Adams, has spent his career encouraging doctor-patient relationships that rely heavily on the use of humor and play. Adams believes establishing this kind of connection with a patient is essential to their physical and emotional health.

Laughter and humor are an important part of life. The book of Proverbs says “a cheerful heart is good medicine” (Proverbs 17:22). Generally speaking, all of us could use more laughter in our lives.

Certainly there’s a time for laughter, but we sometimes use humor to hide.

Sometimes laughter or making a joke is part of a cover-up. We can joke around as a way to hide from others so they won’t take us seriously. Many of us have learned to play the clown and hide a lot of deep heartache behind our humor or wit.

While it’s true that “a cheerful heart is good medicine,” the book of Proverbs also says, “Laughter can conceal a heavy heart, but when the laughter ends, the grief remains” (Proverbs 14:13).

Although laughter can mask the pain, it eventually wears off. The pain is still there, and the most healthy thing we can do is acknowledge it to ourselves, to others and to God.

Are you hiding some pain behind humor? Perhaps it’s time to turn your laughter into mourning (Ecclesiastes 7:3-4) and allow others and God to get close enough to carry your burden and comfort your heart.

the presence of others

Jeff Olson —  January 6, 2012 — 1 Comment

Tomorrow morning, a couple of friends and I are planning to drive two hours to attend the funeral of a stranger. The deceased actually is the brother of a close friend and co-worker who unexpectedly died of a brain aneurism at the age of 50.

We’re attending the funeral for the same reason we’ve called and texted our friend over the past week. He loved his brother dearly, and he’s reeling from such a profound and sudden loss. We can’t begin to take away the pain of his loss, but our presence is a small but meaningful way to rally around our friend and show that we care.

Jesus modeled how important the presence of others is during a time of grief. The night He was arrested in the Garden of Gethsemane, when His soul was crushed with grief to the point of death, Jesus asked a few of His disciples to sit and pray with him (Matthew 26:36-38). They couldn’t take His grief away either, but He desired, even needed their company and prayers.

Just as Jesus needed others to be with Him in His time of need—we need others too. Having others around comforts a grieving heart more than we know.




A Better Day Coming

Allison Stevens —  June 27, 2011 — 3 Comments

My heart is heavy this morning. One of my best friends has cancer and doesn’t have a hopeful prognosis.  According to her doctors, she’ll be lucky to live out the rest of this year.

Another friend’s father and brother were killed in an auto accident last night. I can only imagine her horror and grief.

This world is ravaged by sin and death. It hurts and I hate it. I feel helpless to stop it. I know I’m not alone; anyone reading this has been affected by tragedy and heartache in some way.

My heart is soothed this morning by what I read in Revelation 21:4:  “He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away.”

I look forward to that day. I long for it. I hope you, too, find comfort from this promise of God.

Tragic grief

Tim Jackson —  March 2, 2011 — 3 Comments

On Tuesday, February 22, 2011,  many were shocked and saddened to hear of the senseless and brutal murder of two American couples at the hands of pirates who had held them hostage on their yacht off the East African coast of Somalia. I heard the news on the radio on the way into the office. I too was saddened. Negotiations had failed and these thugs snuffed out the lives of four innocent people. Their deaths were tragic.

It wasn’t until several hours later that morning that an email from my son informed me that the connection to this tragic loss was closer than I imagined. My son serves on a board with a woman who was close friends with one of the couples. They were Christians with a passion for quality media, education, and to see that the Word of God distributed into the hands of those less fortunate than themselves around the globe. Delivering Bibles from their boat to those who didn’t have a copy of the Scriptures was their mission of hope in their retirement.

Being hijacked by a marauding band of Somalia pirates on the high seas interrupted and brought their mission to an abrupt and grizzly end.

Now, what’s left for the families and loved ones left behind is the loss and the grief. But not just grief. Tragic grief. Grief complicated by the how and why of their deaths.

Some times, we expect grief and can somewhat prepare for it because we know it’s coming. Like when a loved one is suffering through a terminal illness or an elderly family member dies at 91 after a long fruitful life. It’s always sad. But not unexpected.

But when we experience a tragic loss, especially through a violent criminal act, grief takes on a level of intensity that almost feels unbearable.

Violence complicates grief. Not only are we left to deal with the loss of our loved one, but we are also left to face the person or persons who took the life of our loved one through violence. Whether it’s a criminal act that targets an individual or a terrorist act that indiscriminately targets a crowd, the grief that explodes internally is deeply disturbing and messy. Finding comfort in our grief from “the Father of Mercies and God of all comfort” (2 Cor. 1:3) and learning to “grieve with hope” (1 Thes. 4:13) is far from easy.

It’s in this agonizing process of groaning over our pain while anticipating of the day when all will be made well (Rom. 8:23; Rev. 21:4) that we discover that we need help. We don’t do this well alone.

We need the understanding support and love of friends and family who are also struggling with the aftermath of this loss. We also may need the help of our pastor to spiritually shepherd us through and angst of grief. A trained grief counselor can also help us navigate through the uncharted waters of tragic grief. And many have found comfort and encouragement in a support group of fellow grievers who like themselves have been tossed into the waves of complicated grief.

Grief is a journey that none of us choose. It chooses us. And we all take that journey at some time. It’s being ambushed by tragic grief that renders us helpless and hurting.

Please pray for the families and friends whose lives are far less rich because Jean and Scott Adam and their friends Phyllis Macay and Bob Riggle are no longer here to share it with them.

The Last Goodbye

Tim Jackson —  December 28, 2010 — 12 Comments

I just got an email from a dear friend who shared with me that a mutual friend of ours just said goodbye to his wife and sent her home. He wasn’t putting her on a train or plane. He wasn’t sending her home to the place where she grew up. Nor was he sending her off to visit her parents. He said his last goodbye to her just today as she went home to be with Jesus after a valiant battle with cancer.

Talk about holiday heartache. I’ve shared before on this blog about the heartache that we experience the first time we go through a holiday without a loved one. It totally changes the color and feel of the holidays. Now my friend will not only have the holiday to look forward to but also the anniversary of his wife’s departure to heaven.

And, as sad as it has been for Ned to lose Kathy, he and the family know that she’s not longer suffering with the cancer that ravage her body. They take comfort in knowing that she’s at peace and free to enjoy all the delights of heaven that they still can only dream about now. And although Ned is a Jesus follower knows that he will see his bride again because she did trust Jesus as her personal Savior and Lord, he and his family still grieve over the loss of enjoying Kathy’s presence here and now.

Paul, a New Testament author,  described the  grief of a Jesus follower as “grief with hope” instead of “grief without hope” (1Thess. 4:13-18). He reminded us that we are not exempt from grief because of our faith. We still grieve. But we grieve differently. We grieve with hope.

Our friend grieves the loss of his wife, as does her children and grandchildren. They have lost a beloved wife, mother, and grandmother for a while. But they know with confidence that she is with the Lord in a place of unimaginable joy and peace that the Apostle John described in Revelation 21:4 as a place without tears . . . “and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away.”

So, if you will, please remember Ned and his family in your prayers as God brings them to mind. Ask “the Father of mercies and God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our afflictions” (1 Corinthians 1:3-4) to comfort them as they’ve said their last goodbye to a wonderful woman that they will see again, but not just yet.