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Thursday, December 28, 2006

Ask the Matriarch — Losing Loved Ones, in More Ways Than One


I’d been taking care of one of the members of my congregation—hospice care. She’d been in the community for about 10 years and a member of our congregation for five. She was diagnosed with brain cancer about six months before her recent death and was in hospice for the last two months of her life. Both of her children were in town and sharing her care, and at least one of our pastoral staff visited her at least every other day—the last 2 weeks, every day. I’d grown very fond of her and her children and care for them deeply.

When she died, I was expecting the funeral to be here—either at the local funeral home or at the church, but the family decided to have the funeral in a city more than 250 miles away, at the church where she was a member for more than 40 years. But she hasn’t been a part of that congregation’s life for more than 20 years—nor have her children. The clergyperson there did the funeral. He had never met her and didn’t allow me or any of our clergy participate in the funeral.

I just don’t understand: why did the children do this? Why won’t that &*%^* other clergyperson allow us to share in the funeral? I am hurt and angry. Finally, how do *I* care for myself, my staff and my congregation so that we don’t feel so bad? The other church is indeed a different denomination that does not allow for female clergy but STILL.

Hurt and Confused

Even when you know it’s coming, this can never be an easy situation, for you, for her family, and for the community who cared about her. The matriarchs agree: There might have been any number of reasons why they held the funeral at her former church. “I’m with you,” says St. Casserole. “It doesn’t make sense to have the funeral away from her context. However, families do odd things as they cope/don’t cope with death. Their decision may have to do with a promise made years ago or be the result of a power struggle in the family. Who knows?”

And you are right to want to commemorate her life. “Funerals and memorials are for the living,” says Peripatetic Polar Bear. “While the family has the first right to decide where the funeral will be held and who will do it, the mourners—including the current congregation and her hospice workers, etc.—have a right and Christian duty to remember her.“

Go ahead with your own
The answer, say the matriarchs in virtual unison, is to go ahead with your own memorial. “Perhaps you all need to offer a memorial service at your church so you can have closure and say goodbye to her,” says Abi. “It will help you, the staff and church to grieve. You can do that without any one’s permission. Let the family know you are doing it, and that you would love for them to attend. They may get more from you all than at they did at the other.”

PPB notes that you can note the distance as a reason for holding the memorial. “Tell the children that because the funeral is so far away, you plan to hold a smaller memorial at your church. If they’d like to come, that would be great. If they don’t mind, you’d like to put it in the paper, so neighbors, etc. can attend. But if they do mind, don’t advertise outside the church. But go ahead and have it. Because it’s not about her; it’s not about just the biological family—It’s also about her church family.”

There are many things you can do to offer your own memorial, too. “At your congregation, where she was loved and known, plan to offer prayers of thanksgiving for her life and involvement in your congregation,” says St. Casserole. She also offers several other ideas for things you can do to commemorate her life:
  • Plant a tree in her honor in the church yard or some kind of memorial which members may contribute to.
  • If she has a close friend in your congregation (other than you) ask that person to plan a memorial type gift in memory.
  • Put an article about her death in your newsletter.
  • Have flowers given in her honor.
  • Pass around a card for people to sign to be sent to her children.

“All these things show care and love,” continues St. Casserole. “And you have creative ideas of your own!”

You’re not alone
This does happen from time to time, unfortunately. Jan notes that it’s often cluelessness that leads to such thoughtlessness, and that sometimes practicality trumps actuality. “Is she going to be buried there in the cemetery of the 250-miles-away church?” she asks. “Does she have siblings who are still members of that other church?” Siblings of older people might have more difficulty traveling a long distance, for instance.

I suppose it falls under the category of things we cannot change. PPB’s been through it, too. “I had a woman commit suicide, and her husband insisted she didn’t ‘deserve’ a funeral,” she says. “We held a memorial. We needed it. He said no to announcing it in the paper. But we held it.”

St. Casserole has seen it happen more than once. “I’ve been kept out of funerals, ignored by the family and ‘allowed’ to give one measly prayer during the service while a pastor, who didn’t know the deceased, blathered on and on,” she writes. “My favorite was when the preacher referred to the decedent by MY name!”

Taking care of you
“We support you in your grief and what you are going through,” writes Abi. “You have brought up what all of us go through when we care for our church members and care deeply. We need to be sure we take care of ourselves when we do our grief work.” After all, you’re grieving too. The shoulder and ear of a friendly colleague can do wonders.

There is also the admittedly meager comfort from knowing you helped make this woman’s last days more comfortable, says Jan. “There is little in knowing that you served this woman and her family well. But it sounds like you did. Blessings to you.”

St. Casserole agrees. “God knows what you’ve done and been to this family,” she says. “Ultimately, it doesn’t matter that you were passed by. Take care of yourself and your flock. Some things in ministry just don’t make sense.”

This post brought to you late by the new fancy and difficult to troubleshoot wireless connection at casa de gallycat. Grrrrrr. Happy New Year, everyone!


  1. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

  2. From one clueless wireless user to another, well done.

  3. We face this issue with relatives who are now in-town but have not been in there hometown (x hundred miles away) for some time. The services will be scheduled x hundred miles away because that is what has been specified in her "advanced directives" and has pre-paid in said location. Make sense? No... Guilt-inducing for remaining family who will need an additional three or four days for travel, services and so on? Oh my, yes.

    So it probably wasn't "you" per se being disincluded as much as someone following "her wishes" to the letter ad nauseum.

    I would echo the idea of a personal memorial tribute at your church. Perhaps it is something that she would have enjoyed seeing or doing (music? landscaping? library? children's ministry? homeless shelter or soup kitchen?) or perhaps it would be a great need you have now that would bring honor to her Chrisitan witness...

    God's peace-

  4. A related question that we are experiencing this week -- why do families insist on having services so quickly after the death? They don't leave enough time for friends and family to travel, the bereaved is still in shock, so they have no memory of the service, etc. Why not wait a week or so? Like my old boss in Texas used to say, "They ain't gittin' any deader!"

  5. A problem one of my clergy acquaintances experienced last year: A "senior saint" in her congregation was taken ill. Because of the sudden nature of the illness, a relative filled out her hospital admission paperwork...but instead of listing the older woman's congregation (in which she was very active), the relative listed her own. Because of HIPPA(sp?) rules, when my pastor acquaintance called the hospital for information on her parishoner, she was refused information, and the family also pretty much barred the pastor from seeing the sick parishoner.

    Maybe it's a good idea, in church newletters, bulletins, etc., to encourage people to create/review advance medical directives so that these kinds of shenanigans don't happen -- that parishoners' chosen churches/clergy are given access to them if they're in the hospital.

  6. Thanks for this. We did do a memorial service and the children attended. It just hadn't occured to them that they could have a funeral here and then a graveside 250 miles away.

    It just shows that pre-planning (esp when the person is in hospice) saves a lot of heartache. It's not an easy conversation to have, but one that can save hurt feelings and misunderstandings later on.

  7. This does happen more often even with people right here. Sometimes the people who have cared for them are not included in the service. We are not sure how this happens, but the family makes the decision and at these times we have no choice.

    I am happy that some things have been discovered in that the children did not understand some of the choices they had, or the impact on the care-givers right where their mom was in hospice and her church family.

    Some people do not think at these times, or as was said have not planned ahead. Planning ahead is so very important for eveyone involved.

    My service will be here, but burial will be in the family plot elsewhere. I have made the plans and my family knows...there is the crux tell your family what is you wish to happen, make the plans, and tell family and friends about them.

    Now I'm hoping this is a long way off, but when alone one is wise to cover all aspects of!

    You did well in your caring and support of this woman and her children. A personal tribute in a memorial of some kind would be very nice. We all need closure of some sort.

    There are times we buy sheet music for the choir to sing..if someone is a music lover. Or have memorial flowers...even the following year this would be a nice remembrance, as well as now.

    Bless you and what you are doing for your church!

  8. I can relate to your heart ache. Just recently we had a shocker of a week where a member of our congregation died of a sudden heart attack at 54, the same day as the other pastors mother in law died. He died at night she died in the morning

    Because the other pastor was busy with organising his own families affairs. I was the one who cared for the widow and her 3 young sons, I was there when she was told by the doctor her husband had died and when she identified the body. I was then the primary carer from church for the following days.

    When it came to the funeral the widow told me she wanted a man to do the funeral. If the other pastor couldn't do it then she would get the minister from the neighbouring church.This is what ended up happening.

    For me, after I recovered from being passed by because of gender, and the working through the guilt of feeling that way. I ask the question, will/did the service reflect the person? And praise God for the involvement and support I have been privilaged to share with the family. Then leave the rest to God

  9. There is always the initial grief and sense of loss. What I have come to know a year after losing my Mom was the despair of loss can unexpectedly run you down like a bulldozer, and it is SOOOO very hard to begin to stand up again. Since her going to be with God, I have suffered other losses this year: a job, a soul friend, a couple of rabbits, my own confidence...the list is different for each one of us but its still there. I purchased a memorial brick for the local medical center where she was treated for her illness and with such kindness and respect. It is in a memorial walkway that surrounds the new labyrinth. I go there and cry...I just do.

    Everything that the Matris have said is true, no doubt, but its getting people to acknowledge YOUR brokenness that I have found is the hardest and most painful part.



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