Few things are more disconcerting than a telephone call informing you that a family member or a friend has died. Brenda and I received three such calls in a single day this week - including a lifelong friend who died unexpectedly, and the daughter of pastor friend choked to death. Needless to say we are reeling from the shock. As we come to grip with our grief and loss I'm reminded of how important the ministry of comfort is in times like this.
As a general rule we are fairly good at rallying around the bereaved immediately following the death. Soon the dining room table groans beneath the staggering assortment of food brought in by loving friends. Although the bereaved don't have much of an appetite, it's something we know how to do, it's something we can give. It's our way of saying that life goes on: Eat something, you'll feel better. Maybe not right away, but by-and-by, and you will see that the sun will shine again, that once more you will be able to laugh.
No one says any of this, at least not out loud. And we probably don't even think it, not consciously anyway. It's deeper than that, almost intuitive. We simply know that life goes on, that death will once again fade away. So we go on living, by rote, if necessary, until we find our way again.
Unfortunately, death doesn't fade very fast for those most affected by it. Long after the last casserole has been devoured, the serving dishes washed and returned; long after the last of the out-of-town relatives have said their good-byes and made the long journey home; long after the most caring friends have gotten over their grief and returned to a normal life, the bereaved will still hurt. Death's residue will hang on like a stubborn toothache.
And then, more than ever, they will need the ministry of comfort. Not covered dishes and sympathy cards, but a safe place where they can grieve without being rebuked or misunderstood. They also need a safe person, someone who will let them be real, someone who will let them weep or rage, as the case may be. Someone who won't try to explain the unexplainable, or fix everything with a prayer. What they need, then, is a good listener and lots of Kleenex.
Prayer and scripture is important too, but we must be careful not to offer it too soon or too casually. Timing and sensitivity are the keys here. Or as one grieving father said, "I know all the 'right Biblical passages'...But the point is this: While the words of the Bible are true, grief renders them unreal."
The same thing can be said about prayer. There is nothing, absolutely nothing, more powerful than prayer; yet grief can render it unreal too. That is not to say there will never be a time for prayer, but only that the time will seldom come until we have listened deeply and with compassion to the honest concerns of the grieving, no matter how disconcerting they may seem to us.
The ministry of comfort is relatively simple - not easy, but simple. The most important thing is presence; be there, don't desert. We are usually pretty good about being there in the moment of crisis, but as the days grow into weeks, we have a tendency to get so caught up in life that we have less and less time for the bereaved.
Remember, grieving is a slow process, often requiring two years or more to complete its healing work, and it can't be hurried. Certain times will be more difficult than others - holidays, anniversaries, birthdays and, of course, the anniversary of the death. We must never make a special point of reminding grieving people of their loss, or of pointing out the significance of any given day. But we should be conscious of them and make a special effort to be available during those difficult times.
The key to ministering to the bereaved is gentleness and compassion, just being there. Or as Joe Bayley says, "Don't try to prove anything to a survivor. An arm around the shoulder, a firm grip of the hand, a kiss - these are the proofs grief needs, not logical reasoning."