Our enquirer asks:
I am curious to know if any of you have any particular rituals for dealing with your own grief prior to the funeral of a beloved church member. How do you care for yourself? How do you deal with your own grief over the loss so that you may minister effectively to the rest of the congregation in their grief?
And we have two very helpful responses rooted in deep experience:
When I was a young priest and in my second year of parish ministry ( a small rural parish) I had 24 funerals in one year. Many of them were of the parish. Five were suicides. I almost went under that year. The grief that I was exposed to was at such a level that I was all but useless to my parish. What I did not realize was that I had unresolved grief from the death of my father while I was in seminary. It took a bit of professional help to get me through that.
We who must deal with the grief of others must be willing to first deal with our own grief in order to be of use to others. If you have not dealt with your own losses in life or at least faced them, there is a temptation to avoid dealing with the grief of others. Since then I have always chosen to have a spiritual director or a therapist to assist me with my issues as I faced death and grief in a congregation. I would strongly urge anyone who feels alone in parish ministry to find a person who can help you address the grief in your life. We all have it whether it has to do with the loss of family or friends or with the loss of a position or even a dream. Be aware of your own loss and work it through with the help of someone. Grief is not something that we need bear alone. But we cannot bear others' until we are willing be healed of our own. Henri Nouwen's The Wounded Healer was a great help for me.
Recently I heard from a family member of one of those who died during that horrible year. I had not heard from him for decades and he blistered me in a Facebook message for my failure to provide the kind of care that he needed at that time. I was stunned but had to admit that I had avoided doing my bounden duty that year. I am thankful that I was able to admit that to him and ask his forgiveness. He had been holding on to that grief for 30 years. Grief is a mean burden; it can distort our whole lives. So don't be afraid of your grief but do seek the help of others. And sometimes just being willing to journey with others in their grief gives us insight into our own. But I do not recommend sharing your stories with your parishioners. Just be aware of the journey.
And may Peace be with you in your journey. You are in my prayers. Muthah+
The funerals of those whom I, too, want to grieve are even more complex. Sometimes I allow myself a little time to grieve before the funeral – maybe after the visit to the family I will go somewhere where I can sit quietly with my own memories, cry if I need to, pray... Other times there is no chance to do that before the funeral and I will set aside some time afterwards. Sometimes there are cards or letters from the person which I re-read and allow myself the space to feel what I am feeling rather than being the one who is ‘coping’ (which is, I think the proper role when I officiate at a funeral). Sometimes I deliberately re-visit some of the readings and words used at the service, allowing myself to hear them as a mourner, not an officiant.
I look forward to hearing what others do...
Thank you both very much indeed. I have encountered another resource -- a small book of Lutheran provenance entitled A Trumpet in Darkness by Robert Hughes (Fortress) -- it's not new (1985, or so, I think) but full of real wisdom and practical counsel clearly given. Out of my personal experience, certainly one of the funerals at which I was most conscious of my own grief was for a woman who had been a "major antagonist" throughout my time in that parish--much to my surprise! Otherwise I think I have dealt, or not dealt, with my own feelings of grief by setting them to one side because the task-to-be-done took precedence (I'm not recommending this, just observing it). Because I buried both my mother and father within the span of a couple of years, and until the last words were said and the last shovelful shovelled, at the second burial, there were no tears at all. But then, with everything done, there were tears a-plenty, and they were a great relief too.
I look forward eagerly to your comments. As always, I hope you are observing your ministry with one eye out for questions to "Ask the Matriarch" -- please send them along to askthematriarch[at]gmail[dot]com!
Peace and joy and comfort to you all!