Loss is a part of life. Whether it’s a pet, a family member, or a friend, we may find ourselves mourning someone we love while at the same time dealing with ministry responsibilities that need our attention. Being able to carry on in ministry amidst having to face loss and grief may seem impossible.
Sometimes, we have time to prepare ourselves for a loss. When I was a full-time Family Ministries Director, my 46 year old brother died after 3 long years with esophageal cancer. Our family had those years to consider his passing and then weeks to sit beside him, making his last days full of love and comfort. Other times, it’s an unpredictable, shocking event, as when our family had to help our beloved greyhound pass with only hours to prepare. When faced with grief, what things should we try to remember while it feels like our personal world stops and the rest of it keeps going?
Remember That There’s No Way Over, Only Through
“You’ll get over it soon.”
“I’m surprised you’re still so sad, it’s been 6 months!”
With grief, there simply isn’t an end or an over. While the sharpness and weight of our loss may lessen, we will always miss the presence of who we’re grieving. Remembering that grief is necessary is important.
“Grieving is like breathing, but we act like we have to hold our breath – It’s a natural process and if you pretend like you don’t have to do it or that it doesn’t exist, you’ll end up choking or passing out.”– Dr. Shatavia Alexander Thomas, AZ Therapist
Gently remind people who say well-intentioned phrases like the ones above that grief lingers because love lasts. Grief is individual yet universal – meaning we all experience it, but each in our own way. Additionally, mourning is not a set process. You may have heard of the 5 stages of grief: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance; but most people don’t travel those steps in one straight line. We might traverse up and down those stages every other hour. All of this is normal and natural.
Remember To Let Others In
In your ministry role, it will be helpful to share your situation with trusted supervisors, co-workers, volunteers, and others. Doing this will help them understand that you’re entering a healing process. We don’t want to place a burden on students to manage our emotional reactions. In some cases, it’s absolutely appropriate to be vulnerable about the loss you’ve experienced, how it’s affected you, and the support you’re surrounded by. The young people in your ministry may surprise you with their compassion. You’ll also show them that we don’t have to carry our hardest moments alone. If people want to bring you dinner, cut your grass, take your kids to the park, or sit with you and look at photos of your loved one while you cry, say yes.
Remember To Get The Help You Need
Getting help might mean you delegate more ministry tasks than usual, or that you ask your volunteers and/or other staff to take over the heavy lifting. You could also consider keeping the ministry schedule temporarily light when you return to work. It may be helpful to allow your energy and focus to have some breathing room. Help can also take the form of seeking counseling in order to manage and express your emotions in a healing way.
I spoke with Emily Edwards, LCSW, (who was once a youth minister herself!), and she described what she and other mental health professionals see in their clients. “Many of us in the helping professions have carried grief with hurting people in our ministries. Our empathy for others can give us secondary trauma that will intensify our own grief events.” When this happens, we can move from Acute Grief – the time just following our own loss – into Complicated Grief. This phase is when our acute symptoms never seem to lessen or go away. A licensed therapist, counselor or psychologist can help us process the grieving journey into what is called Integrated Grief. This is a life-long stage in which a grieving person is dealing with the reality of their loss, and can cope with daily life. Be encouraged that seeking outside help with your grief is not a sign of weakness. It’s a strength that you trust in God and allow God’s people to help you.
Remember That Simultaneous Grief And Ministry Is Biblical
Who better to give us a practical example of ministry amidst loss and grief than Jesus, himself? In John 11 we learn about some dear friends of his, the siblings Mary, Martha, and Lazarus. When Lazarus dies, the sisters both approach Jesus and express their faithful expectations that if Jesus had only been nearer, their brother would not have died. Jesus grieves, comforts, and weeps with them, along with demonstrating his ministry and love by then raising Lazarus to life.
We may never be expected to resurrect a friend while we’re grieving. But it’s reassuring that even while we are mourning and it feels as if life is over, we still possess and can use the gifts God has given us in ministry.
Maresi Brown is the Administrator, Registrar, & Interview Specialist for Youth Ministry Institute. She spent nearly 20 years in ministry to young people and families at a United Methodist Church. Maresi is an avid knitter and resides in St. Petersburg, FL, with her husband, 3 kids, and Roo, the most adorable baby dog.