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Thomas F. Fischer, M.Div., M.S.A., Editor
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Grief: The Hardest Thing
Thomas F. Fischer, M.Div, M.S.A.
Part of being a "seelsorger" certainly has its joys. But it also has its
disappointments. Indeed, to be in ministry is to be exposed to tears, heartache, and
sometimes seemingly unstoppable tears.
- Perhaps the hardest part of ministry is the grief and tears of a caring, Christian
pastor. Leaving a parish to begin a new pastorate or to retire may incite deep
regardless of whether one did so willingly or under duress.
- Rejection, betrayal, dashed hopes and expectations, thinking of what could have and
should have been, the frustration of seeing people destroy what took so long to
buildand not being able to stop it are just a few of the grief-evoking events which,
in addition to the loss of key members, leaders and confidants, take a heavy toll
on a ministers grieving heart.
- Grief Is A "Funny" Thing
- One thing about grief that Ive learned is that grief is a "funny" thing.
During grief, you can never predict how youor otherswill
grief will manifest itself as anger or greater irritability. Sometimes grief makes us
edgy; other times it causes us to withdraw.
- Grief also has a way of showing up unexpectedly. Just when we think were over it,
we may find ourselves suddenly in tears or angry as grief brings out memories. Its
the unexpected things that make grief so difficult. No one can predict how theyll
respond in grief. It cant be controlled; it has no pre-set duration. Sometimes it
will hit you harder than youve ever imagined. Yes, "grief is a funny
- What To Expect
- Certainly most ministry professionals are aware of Kuebler-Ross "Five Stages
of Grief." Were probably all familiar with the stages: shock, denial, anger,
bargaining, and acceptance. And we know that they dont necessarily always occur in
or by themselves. Other "expected" grief dynamics are that we
will grieve on the anniversaries of various key dates and on those special holidays which
meant so much.
- But sometimes we may not be aware of other things about grief. For example, the ninth
month after the loss is often the beginning of the most intense grief. Why nine months is
a significant time of grief is unknown. Perhaps it mirrors the nine months of conception
and indicates the "birth" of the recognition that loss has brought us to the
threshold of a new way of life.
- Grief's Foci
- Present grief tends to remind us of past hurts. The loss of something of great value,
the loss of a family member friend, or the loss of a confidant will often reflect back to
other significant losses. The result is that the present grief is compounded by the grief
of previous losses. This may or may not be a conscious process. Nevertheless, the
experience of compounded grief is very real and not to be
- Closely related to this is that our grief focuses on our greatest psychological needs.
Since our earliest days of infancy, we have developed individual needs. Some of these
needs were met by our family or other significant others. Others were unmet.
- Grief often focuses on the loss of fulfillment of those critical individual needs. Such
needs may include our most important needs of security, belonging, safety, attention,
unconditional love and acceptance, etc. When these needs are unfulfilled, they attack the
root of our emotional well-being. Grief is a painful recognition that our source of
fulfillment is lost.
- Grief causes searching behaviors. During grief we vigilantly search for that person or
thing we have lost. So many of the things we see, hear or experience will painfully remind
us again of the emptiness of our loss.
- During grief, we also tend to generalize the sights and sounds of our environment and
apply them to our personal pain. The words of familiar songs suddenly become painfully
personal. Hymns, Scripture readings, and other literatures somehow seem to be directed
specifically at us and our situation, inciting fear, anger, loneliness, tears, or other
grief responses. Indeed, reading various self-help materials in grief can help us recover
from grief and find a "new" friendbooks.
- Expect The Unexpected
- Counseling others with their difficulties may bring unexpected pain for ministry
professionals. During intense grief, some pastors will develop a "radar" to see
the hurt in others. The experience of ones own pain often sensitizes our awareness
of others pain. You may find yourself saying, "I can just see it in their
- Listening and supporting others in their hurt often opens the wounds of our personal
hurt and gives painful, personal reminders of our loss and the issues which accompanied
our loss. Their hurt reminds us of our hurt. At times it can be heart-wrenching and an
emotionally draining experience.
- Another unexpected effect of grief is that it opens the door to unwarranted guilt. No
matter how strong ones Christian faith is, no matter how much one clings to the
freedom of which Paul spoke in Galatians 5:1 and elsewhere, pastorsno less than
othersmay experience deep guilt. Such guilt may be far beyond the
"normal" level of guilt. When such overwhelming and unshakable guilt occurs,
pastors and ministry professionals ought to be prepared to get professional Christian
counseling without delay.
- Professional counseling will not only provide the appropriate atmosphere for support,
but may help to identify other causes for the deep sense of guilt including depression or
other forms of mental illness. Individuals experiencing deep guilt should also undergo a
complete physical examination. Be sure to insist on a complete blood profile as part of
this examination to examine possible endocrine or other chemical imbalances.
- Though there may be many other types of unexpected things about grief, a final thing to
expect in grief is that the second year is probably the hardest. During this time one
realizes that re-adjustments need to be made. Individuals will struggle against the
loneliness, the anger, the rejection, feelings of failure, the sense of alienation and
guilt to try to re-build, re-orient, and re-establish their families, their ministries,
and their lives.
- Grief And Spiritual Development
- Grief can throw pastors (no less than others) into an unparalleled, unexpectedand,
admittedlyunwanted painful path of spiritual development. Grief reminds us
of the importance of a regular, daily, intimate connection with God. In loss, we will
struggle with the nature of God and our willingness to acknowledge and follow His plan for
- Since grief focuses on the momentary and temporary, it tends to block out our awareness
of the broad scope of Gods plan for our entire life. After the grief has passed, we
will come to understand how God used the grief to develop, deepen, shape and strengthen
the character of our faith and trust in God.
- During grief, there may be times when we will experience certain inexplicable
happenings, coincidences, insightsthis Scott Peck calls moments of
"grace"which give us inexplicable relief, comfort, support or recognition
that God really is with us and that what is happening really is part of His plan.
- The Greatest Difficulty Of Grief
- Perhaps the greatest difficulty of grief is not having a "blueprint" of grief.
Such blue print is not a "planned" way to grieve. Rather, its a pattern of
grieving that one has learned from previous grief experiences. The first time people
experience grief of an overwhelming, unprecedented magnitude in their lives, it totally
devastates the one grieving. The more difficult grief weve experienced, the more we
know what to expect. Thus, we create a personal "blueprint" of our unique
pattern of grief.
- One thing which pastors have difficulty with is the grief related to congregational
life. Conflicts, resignations, schism, splits, betrayals, being forced out, et al. all
evoke grief for which many pastors may have not yet developed a personal grief
"blueprint." Unprepared and largely unsupported in these times of congregational
difficulties, the grief struggle may be much more intense.
- Having no previous experience, nowhere to "hang the hat" of the barrage of
emotions, grieving pastors may experience thoughts, actions and lack of control never
before imagined or experienced
and totally out of character. All these are indicators
that grief has taken its toll; coping mechanisms have failed. Unless appropriately
addressed, the failure of coping mechanisms can lead to disastrous consequences.
- Some Suggestions For Your Grief
- 1) Admit that grief is hard work. It's probably the hardest thing you'll ever do!
Whether youre grieving personal losses or losses relating to ministry, go through
the work of grief.
2) Give yourself time to grieve. Its not a sin to take time for yourself. Give
yourself an opportunity to do what helps your grief experience mosttake a walk, read
a book, visit a friend, do a project or hobby item, ...whatever.
3) Make grief a spiritual experience. Read through the Scriptures with the eye of grief.
Consider the depth and diversity of the grief of Gods servantsfrom Job, who
lost everything; to Abraham, who spent three days grieving the death of Isaac; Jeremiah,
John the Baptist, Paul and, of course, Jesus.
- Consider and examine what made them strong in their weakness. Study the Psalms and see
Davids pattern for dealing with adversity and loss. In each case, those in grief
went through the difficult emotional struggle of grief. But each time they grieved, they
came to a recognition that it was Gods strength and plan that upheld them before,
during, and after the grief..
4) Dont pour all your grief on just one person. Even family, best friends and
deepest confidants have limits to what they can endure. Sometimes the awareness of your
grief may remind them of their grief
and scare them. They want to help
dont expect more than what they can give. See a counselor instead.
5) Dont dwell in the past. It cant come back and it wont come
back. God never calls us to the past. His call is always to His glorious future
plan for us. Let Him take you
even if He has to drag you!
6) Explore and expand your spirituality. The Christian faith is not just a stale,
professional, academic exercise. Its the greatest experience of grace. Experience
Gods nearness, His love, His guidance in a fresh way.
7) Re-examine your level of self-differentiation. Especially when grief is professionally
related, the experience of grief can be more difficult for those who have totally immersed
themselves into their ministry
and invested so little in the rest of their lives.
Even in severe conflict, dont shortchange your emotional needs for
8) Be your own best friend. Dont be so hard on yourself. Jesus didnt die on
the cross just for your parishioners; He died for you, too! Enable
yourself to be forgiven. Seek out a brother/confessor. Sometimes the sharing of the
Eucharist in a private setting with another pastor can bring a special sense of Gods
nearness, strength, and forgiveness in those times we need it most.
9) Always be prepared for loss. Tragedy, trauma and change are virtually unpredictable and
uncontrollable. The best preparation for loss is the recognition that it can happen at a
moments notice. Note what things were most helpful when you're grieving. Discover
how others cope with their grief. Then consider how these things may be helpful the next
time grief comes around.
10) Examine your attachments and boundaries. Make sure theyre healthy and
appropriate. Theres nothing more devastating than to go through grief for
something (or someone) to which the attachment was inappropriate, idolatrous, or
11) Trust God to bring healing. Grief is merely a stepping stone for a new life. Be open
to this great work of God to bring you to a brighter, stronger future as His servant.
12) Finally, remember that, in Christ, after every death is a resurrection. It's the
essence of our Christian Faith. Claim it, preach it, experience it, and live it...with
Thomas F. Fischer
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was revised on:
Tuesday, October 05, 2004 11:03:57 PM