I rushed into the emergency room of our local hospital, where doctors and nurses surrounded a young child, working desperately to save his life. His mother, a dear friend of ours, was on the other side of the pulled curtain separating her from the team of physicians who were attending to the unresponsive body of her 22-month-old son. There had been an accident, and his life was left hanging in the balance. The mother grabbed me and pulled me to a nearby gurney as we knelt to pray down the mercy of heaven. This wasn’t some, “let us pray” precious moment of intercession. This was the pounding of a mother’s clenched fists on the very chest of God—a mother’s heart-broken, anguished cry to the only One who could help. Several minutes later, the curtain was pulled back, and the doctor stepped toward us with a look that needed no words. “I’m so, so sorry…” Despite all the efforts of the medical staff, despite the barrage on heaven that we had unleashed through prayer in that room and all over our community as others had learned of the situation, despite all that we wanted to see, believe, and gain—there was loss. The deepest loss a parent can feel. I simply held her there as we wept.
As a leader, it’s a sacred privilege to walk with people through the pain of loss. I’ve found over the years that these are often the most precious, poignant, powerful times of ministry. There is no one-size-fits-all manual on dealing with grief, but I trust what is shared here will help as you walk with students and assist them in navigating grief.
As a leader, it’s a sacred privilege to walk with people through the pain of loss. I’ve found over the years that these are often the most precious, poignant, powerful times of ministry.Jerry Varner
No method of grieving is wrong. There are lots of different manifestations of grief, from uncontrollable crying to laughter. Be sure not to make judgements on anyone’s method of grieving.
Even if you believe them to be true, in moments of grief and pain, a chapter and verse isn’t the best tool. Other unhelpful cliches include “(S)he’s in a better place,” “(S)he’s probably looking down at us right now and wants us to be happy.” “God must’ve needed her/him more than we do.” Kay Warren (wife to Rick Warren) said this after losing their son to suicide: “When someone is hurting, don’t throw a Bible verse AT them, throw your arms AROUND them.”
Listen first, then reflect back to the person grieving so that you are only validating their emotion. Don’t try to talk them out of their sadness.
One of the most damaging things we can do as we lead others through grief is to rush them past any part of the process. In an effort to share our version of wisdom, we might inadvertently not listen well to where they are. This can lead us to saying things that aren’t helpful.
One of the most damaging things we can do as we lead others through grief is to rush them past any part of the process.Jerry Varner
The Bible gives us clear instruction to “weep with those who weep” (Romans 12:15).
The ministry of presence simply means that you are there and joining in with the heart of the person grieving. We’re told in John 11 that “Jesus wept” at the passing of His dear friend Lazarus. This shows us that God attends our grief and joins us there. And Jesus sets this example for us to embrace sadness when sadness is appropriate.
Realize there are waves of emotions that often accompany grief.
If students experience these waves of emotions in the midst of an otherwise normal conversation, simply console them with an arm around them. Let them know they’re not alone and their emotions are valid. Psalm 34:18 tells us that, “God is near to the brokenhearted and saves the crushed in spirit.” Let times of grief be a fertile ground for God’s Spirit to minister to you and to those you’re seeking to serve. Likewise, if a student is ready to move on, let him or her do so. No need to force a sensation that isn’t naturally there just because it seems like it should be.
Leave the door of communication wide open for those who need it.
Share your number and offer your availability to keep walking together. Many times, we unintentionally put an expiration date on a grief season, especially when we’re ready to move on. Recognize that those in deep grief will be processing long after the guests have left and the well wishes have stopped. Leaving an open door of availability reinforces that you’re there to minister regardless of anything else that might be going on.