Pastoral care (21): Why bereavement must be accompanied

Death is the scandal of life! Sometimes it strikes suddenly, sometimes it is anticipated, and at times even desired—and most of the time it couldn’t care less about the calendar. Those who are left behind suffer from the utter void that is created.

Death is separation. When someone dies—spouse, friends, parents, or children—loved ones suffer heart-wrenching grief. Death sends them on an emotional journey that, if they had had a choice, they would never have ventured on. There is no uniform model of grieving. Everyone feels differently affected. A myriad of emotions must be grappled with: shock, stupor, anger, guilt, despondency, loneliness, fear, panic. Some feel confused, abandoned, disappointed. Others are petrified, as if paralysed. Agony and pain dominate the day and especially the night, if there is even time to think.

Parting – coping – fresh start

Like an empty bag, from which all the air has escaped—a deep hole without any light… This is what it feels like when a person with whom you have been together for a time leaves. Grief counselling can help in such situations. The reconciling confrontation with loss is an important part of life for people. Sigmund Freud already called for grief counselling as a discipline of psychotherapy. Bereavement counselling lends personal pastoral care a special lustre. Properly understood, it can help to shape the time between parting, coping, and starting anew.

Although grief counselling cannot take away the pain, it can make a difference in how the bereaved cope and support them in affirming life. This is a process and happens over several stages and is challenging at best.

Good reactions are:

  • Do not sugar-coat what is not good! Loss, shock, horror cannot be explained away. And even if the death of someone close was to be expected, there is a void! The feeling of inconsolableness is justified and belongs to the bereaved. “I’m so sorry. I don’t know what to say,” is a good phrase and far more appropriate than “I know exactly how you feel.” That should be avoided.
  • People who have experienced a loss have every right to grieve! Statements such as “You have to look ahead” or “Why don’t you go on a holiday first…” are not helpful. The bereaved might not feel the same way and they don’t have to.
  • The things the bereaved feel are completely normal! Conflicting feelings and thoughts, tears, an inner void, hurt, anger, despair, doubts about God’s help: all this is acceptable and normal. And because grief is such a huge process of adjustment to a changed life situation, this process requires a fair amount of time and patience.

Between two worlds

Since people dealing with the loss of a loved one are torn back and forth between the two worlds of memory and reality, two worldviews need to be served. The bereaved want to share memories. Grief counsellors listen, cry along, or just sit and spend time quietly with a bereaved person. Memories are precious, comparable to a treasure hunt and biographical fine-tuning. The one who has left is rediscovered and the one who has been left behind is repositioned. Gradually, the two worlds come together through the bridge of reconciliation.

Acknowledging the loss

At the end of the grief process there is the realisation that the loved one is no longer there. He or she is gone and will not come back. The pain is still there, but it has arrived in the mind and the heart. When Christians say, “You will see each other again in the beyond,” it sounds good and right for the one saying it, and it is a well-intentioned attempt at consolation. Nothing more! However, this must not be said early on in the process of a person’s grieving, because when a loss is fresh and hurts like hell, this phrase will feel like a sledgehammer. It is tantamount to saying: “Don’t mourn…”, which would be wrong. Instead, acknowledging the loss is important.

In our next part in our pastoral care series, we will explore the topic of spiritual support in emergencies.

Photo: mgruenberg -

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Peter Johanning
Congregational life