Lesson 3: Jeremiah 9:17-21; Matthew 2:16-18
Elizabeth and her son, Andrew, had set out early in the morning to meet with the admissions officer at the University of Virginia. Andrew was a high school senior and looking at various colleges. The other son, William, had already left for school on the bus. When Elizabeth and Andrew returned home at 2:30 p.m., they found 45-year-old Paul, Elizabeth’s husband and the boys’ dad, on the floor in a diabetic coma. Paul’s breakfast lay untouched. Paul was rushed to intensive care, but he never revived. In planning the memorial with the family, I asked if Elizabeth wanted the Apostles’ Creed as part of the worship service. Elizabeth replied, “I won’t be able to say it, so the congregation will have to say it for me.”
Though the family’s names have been changed, those days are seared into my memory. The women in the church filled the house with food. Relatives came into town. People sent sympathy cards and made memorial gifts to the church. Hundreds of people came to the funeral home for time with the family.
The church was packed for the Witness to the Resurrection worship service. Nearly everyone was in tears. When we got to the line in the Apostles’ Creed that includes “I believe in the resurrection of the body and the life everlasting,” the moment almost overpowered me. Affirming faith in God in the face of the starkness of an untimely death voiced our Christian hope and centered us.
No one really knew what to say to Elizabeth. Lament can make us feel uncomfortable both at the time of death and well after. Though well-intentioned, we may make unhelpful remarks in an attempt to make a person feel better (or to lessen our discomfort). Over the years, grievers have told me of some of the comments they least appreciated and those for which they were grateful.
Here are a few things that are unhelpful and helpful.
“Let me know what I can do to help.” You want to do something to help, but this phrase lays the burden on the griever to summon the energy to figure out what you could do. It is more helpful to say things like, “I can pick up your friends and family from the airport” or “I will do carpool for the next two weeks.”
“I know how you feel.” People grieve differently. At any given moment, a griever may feel sadness, confusion, guilt, anger, regret, thanksgiving or relief. We can never know what someone is feeling unless they tell us. It can be more helpful to say, “I can’t imagine how you are feeling” in order to leave room for whatever is being felt.
“God wanted her in heaven.” Though we affirm life after death, a griever may react in anger to such a statement because, as one person told me, “God must not care very much about me if that is true.” It is better to say, “You are in my thoughts and prayers.”
“You are handling this so well” or “You are so strong.” Though meant as a compliment, such remarks convey the message that we expect the person to be strong. It is better to affirm your care for the person.
“God has a reason for his death.” Such a well-meaning phrase is meant to give reassurance. However, some deaths are very sudden, violent or someone has died at a young age. For the griever, the death may represent something utterly senseless.
With children, it is important to use simple language to talk about death. “Grandmama died today. To die means that we won’t be able to see her or touch her. I am sad that she died. You might feel sad, angry or confused.” Phrases like “pass over” won’t make much sense to a child.
Children are helped by participation in ritual. Explain what will happen at the memorial service or funeral. If children are old enough, they may want to read a poem or Scripture. Don’t pressure them to do so. You can ask a younger child to draw a picture of some of the things that she liked to do with the departed person.
There is no timetable for grief. It can appear out of nowhere like a powerful wave, overwhelming the person even years later. I heard how friends helped a widow after her husband’s death. On holidays and birthdays, they called her. On the first anniversary of his death, they arranged a meal and shared their favorite memories. On the second anniversary, they put two signs in her yard saying, “We miss him too” and “We love you.” Understanding, accepting friends can help us grieve.
Rosalind Banbury lives in Richmond, Virginia, and is a pastor in the Presbytery of the James.
You can purchase the PW/Horizons Bible study book through the PC(USA) Church Store.
Given that many of our congregations continue to conduct Bible study and Sunday school classes virtually, we would like to make some of our resources normally accessible only to subscribers more widely available. Our commentaries on the Presbyterian Women Horizons Bible study and the Standard Uniform lessons are normally found in print or behind the paywall on our website. For a limited time, you may access them online and share the links to class participants at no cost. We would ask only that if you able, you would consider a donation to the Presbyterian Outlook so that we can continue to produce these resources. We give thanks for you and your ministry, especially in these challenging times.