Pastoral Resources: Post-Funerary Counseling Tips
Glen Davidson in Understanding Mourning performs a study of over 1200 mourners and concluded that mourners feel that clergy did not meet the following four points for them:
- At the time of death, clergy were
not there for them
- No one was there to help with the funeral service
- 6 months after loss of loved one, mourners felt that contact
from cleric would have been helpful
- 1-year memorial and holidays are when they hoped for guidance and assistance
In light of this, there are ten suggestions for priests to better assist them in their post-funeral ministry:
1) Make a pastoral visit by LISTENING very carefully
People with loss often times feel as though they are not given the chance to talk
The bereaved WANT to tell about the loss
The priest need not say anything in the initial pastoral visits -- he just needs to listen
The first few times the mourner tells the story, it is painful; then it becomes very emotional; then it begins to get better
2) Avoid Clichés
This makes the bereaved angry. Avoid saying things such as:
"I know how you feel" Never say this unless you have had the same experience
"He led a full life"
"At least you had __ years together"
"You are young and can get married again"
"You can have other children"
"Your child is an angel"
The problem with these clichés is that they diminish the loss and make it insignificant. Also be very careful how much Scripture you quote.
3) Respond with empathy
Practical counseling with short sentences and validating such as:
"This must be hard to accept"
"I am sure this is very painful"
"Tell me more"
Make sure you do not do most of the talking -- just enough to let them know that you are there
4) Provide literature
Information is power.
Most bereaved individuals begin to think that they are emotionally unstable.
When they begin to read about the bereavement of others, it normalizes their process so that they can see how they are responding and how others respond.
Funeral homes oftentimes have helpful material.
Speak with the funeral director to see what they have.
5) Recommend a support group (This is important since the bereaved do not have any energy to find names and numbers)
Assess the intensity of the grief. If the individual is very distraught, you may recommend this earlier. There is no pattern.
The bereaved do not need a lot of intense "one-on-one".
The value of a support group is:
The individual(s) will understand that others have been through it
The individual(s) will see others coping and managing effectively
If the priest is in a community without a bereavement support group, he can start one or network with other churches or meet with the funeral home. Listening skills are important for a facilitator.
A grief support group that meets twice per month is ideal.
6) Exercise the Biblical virtue of patience
Be patient, for God has created us to heal from our wounds--the same is true on an emotional level.
Those who do not heal are often times those who make the decision not to.
Expected recovery periods:
Death of a spouse: 3-5 years
Death of a child: longer than 5 years
The individual(s) experiencing grief will never go back to their "old selves" but will adjust and go on.
In the 3-5 year range, the bereaved will begin to have more "good" days than "bad" days.
7) Offer guidance to the bereaved
They need to be "tutored" because they are too close to the loss and thus do not know what to do and what not to do.
If you are in a parish with a newsletter, you may choose to include some tips on how to grieve, such as ways to guide the bereaved (tips to the bereaved):
- Allow yourself to grieve (if you feel like you want to cry, then cry
- Do not make any major decisions until the end of the first year unless it is absolutely necessary. Do not sell your car; do not sell your home.
- Understand that your status as a widow/widower may be seen as a threat by some couples
- Understand that grief is long lasting
- Avoid the use of drugs and alcohol
- Keep busy: If you were working, go back to work. That is the best thing. Do it as soon as possible. Go back to a "normal" routine. If retired, then it is more difficult, but try to volunteer somewhere. Beware of the extreme of doing too much.
- Rely on God to give you the strength to go on. Draw on spiritual resources; keep going to Church; do not avoid going back to your faith community
8) Help the Bereaved adopt a "Survivor's Attitude"
Crucial attitudes are those such as:
"I will not be defeated"
"I will not assume a victim's posture
"I can do it if I set my mind to it"
"I will accept life's challenges"
9) Bring spiritual resources to bear
The priest is not merely a "psychologist".
Bring the bereaved the comfort of Scripture (such as the 23rd Psalm).
Remember the bereaved in your prayers--it is a lonely journey for them!
10) Suggest professional help
Most do fine with the grieving process/bereaving but some do not.
A suggested bibliography for the priest and those experiencing loss:
Nancy O'Connor, Letting Go With Love: The Grieving Process (good to recommend to the bereaved)
Beverly Raphael, The Anatomy of Bereavement (a good resource book)
Elisabeth Neel, Seven Choices: Taking New Steps to a New Life After Losing the One You Love
Robert Veninga, A Gift of Hope
These ten steps and bibliography are merely suggestions and guidelines and are not intended to be comprehensive.
The above material is adapted from a lecture on bereaving and grief ministry (3/95) given in a class on Pastoral Theology at Holy Cross Greek Orthodox School of Theology by Mr. Victor Parachin