The following study is part of our Pastoral Counseling Series and was given to show ministers how to counsel those who have lost someone through death. The principles may also be applied by anyone who is currently going through a time of grief and bereavement.
Part 01 – The Mechanics of Grief
Chapter 01 – Grief Has Many Stages
I want to start this teaching by sharing one Scripture from 2 Corinthians 1:3. It says,
Blessed [be] God, even the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of mercies, and the God of all comfort,
Who comforts us in all our tribulation, that we may be able to comfort those who are in any trouble, by the comfort with which we ourselves are comforted by God.
Loss Causes Grieving
Any traumatic experience in life produces effects that might need some counseling. Any loss can produce an experience of what we call grieving, but we usually consider the death of a loved one the most traumatic one.
Divorce or even breaking up a long-standing relationship can often be just as devastating. It is pretty close to the experience of death or bereavement.
So a lot of the principles that I will be sharing here can actually even be used if you are counseling someone who has just gone through a crisis. This can take place when a person they have been in love with and they planning to marry, suddenly dumps them. Now they are left feeling devastated.
It can also happen when someone has suddenly had to face a divorce after being married for a long time. It maybe comes unexpectedly and it sometimes has the same devastating effect on your life as a death.
We are going to look specifically at death here. But as I said, some of the principles can be used for any kind of crisis that causes grief in a person. We will look at some of the effects, mechanisms and stages which are exactly the same as those in death.
When you lose someone, even when they are still alive, it can still be like a death to you. It can have the same effects in life.
I think for many people, when they are faced with someone who is grieving, like someone who has just lost a loved one, they feel they don’t know what to say. They are just not sure what to say. They don’t know how to handle it or quite how to express themselves.
So very often people tend to avoid the person. Rather than open their mouth and say something they shouldn’t, they just keep away. Then even afterwards when you speak with the person, you like to talk around the subject and talk about everything else except what has actually happened.
Sometimes you might feel that you are saving the person the pain. But actually you are making a big mistake. I think the reason a lot of us are confused on this, is because we don’t understand the mechanics of grief.
My Fear of Death
It took many years before I faced my first experience of the actual death of a loved one and someone close to me. I must admit I had a fear of death. I think I got it from my mom who somehow had a fear of death. I think I was actually born with it.
Even though I knew the Lord and I knew what would happen if I died, I still had this negative something about death. I remember when I was in ministry, my greatest fear was that somebody in the church would die and I would have to do the funeral.
I have not yet done a funeral. The Lord has protected me and I have managed to avoid it until now, because I just hated the whole subject of death. But as I began to study counseling and to work with people, I realized that we need to know how this whole thing works and how to handle it.
You see if you are avoiding a person when they are grieving, they face an extreme loneliness. And sometimes they don’t have an opportunity to let their grief out.
Sometimes they may feel they have to control their emotions in the presence of others, and they never show you what is going on inside of them. That can actually have a very negative effect on them.
Especially when you are a counselor or a leader in the Body of Christ, it is going to be part of your role to counsel people who are facing this.
If you are a pastor, sooner or later someone is going to ask you to do a funeral. But you had better do more than just the funeral service. Going and pulling out the book to know all the right things to say and do is not enough.
Particularly if it someone in your congregation that you are responsible for, you will have to do a whole lot more than just take them through the process of burying their loved one. You will have to know how to handle their grief situation and how to counsel them through it.
This then is what I want to look at in some detail in this teaching.
The role of the counselor is to comfort. And you need to understand the stages of grief, because there are several stages that grief goes through. It is not just a once off full blown event.
For some of those stages you can’t do much except just be there. But some of them you will have to not only be there, but start getting actively involved in the process as a counselor, a pastor and a leader.
This means you need to understand how these stages work, what takes place in them, and how you can go about dealing with them.
Only Counsel When Asked
Here is something important. If you are not invited to counsel, don’t stick your nose in and offer counsel when it wasn’t asked for. Be very careful.
If someone asks you to do the funeral, they have also asked you to counsel. You can assume that. You are their pastor and it is your responsibility to give them counsel.
However very often you will meet other people who are grieving and you want to be there for them. But don’t take it upon yourself to say,
“I am the great counselor here. Let me sort your problem out for you.”
That applies of course to all counseling. So when you come to counseling somebody in grief, make sure that they are open to receive counsel from you, otherwise you are not going to help them at all.
Once you have established that you are going to be there for them and that you are going to help them through this grieving process, let them know about it.
Say, “I am going to be working with you on this. I’m going to be there for you and I’m going to help you through the situation.
I understand a bit of the grief process and some of what you are going through. So I want you to know that I am going to be there for you. I want to meet with you a few times so I can help you through this.”
Prepare them ahead of time, so that they know this isn’t just a case of once the funeral is over that is the end and they don’t see you again. You may not realize it, but once the funeral is over that is actually when your work really begins. We will look at that shortly.
As I said earlier on, your task is to guide the person through the entire grief process. Do it until they come out on the other end, ready to adapt back to a normal life.
The Stages of Grief
You need to understand the mechanics of grief, and I want to look firstly at the stages of grief. There are various stages that people have identified, but these are some of the main ones that you need to take into account.
The first stage happens particularly if death has come unexpectedly. If the person has been sick for a long time and you know they are going to die soon, you are a bit more prepared. But when death comes suddenly, you get a phone call and someone says,
“I have bad news for you. So-and-so has passed away.”
Or maybe the person just dies in front of you or something. When it happens suddenly and unexpectedly, the first stage is shock. It is a traumatic, shocking event.
Very often during that stage you are so numb that you don’t even know what to feel. You can’t even express how you feel. There is not usually even any grieving. There is just a sense of,
“What? No it can’t be!”
There is just a sense of disbelief. And when a person is going through that stage don’t try and counsel them. They are not ready for it. All you can do is be there and say,
“I heard what happened. I just want you to know that I am here for you.”
You just need to be there for them, and it is the one time that as a pastor you don’t need to do anything. Wait for them to get over the shock and disbelief and to reach the stage where they finally acknowledge it.
It starts with them saying,
“He is dead.”
Then it becomes,
“Yes, he is dead.”
It now becomes a realization where they admit it, acknowledge it and see it. Now begins the first real stage of the grief process.
There are a lot of things that take place during this stage. There can be weeping, sometimes uncontrolled, or there can just be quietness. Something begins to take place deep within the person.
Again at this stage they are not asking for counsel, so don’t give any. Just be there ready, because there are a few things you will have to pick up that are going to start manifesting pretty soon.
The third stage is what we call bereavement. Bereavement is a stage of total disorientation, where the person’s life begins to fall apart.
They just go to pieces and they don’t know where they are. They are in total confusion and it feels like everything is falling apart at the scenes.
This is a very important time for you to be there. But again you are not going to be able to do much counsel until things begin to surface. I will share with you shortly the kind of things that are likely to surface during this stage.
After bereavement there comes that time when it is all over. The funeral is over and the person has to settle back to normal life. The final stage is the stage of rebuilding their life without that person.
That is when you as a counselor are absolutely essential. And yet that is the one time that people avoid. It is as though they say,
“We have been there for you. We went to the funeral and showed you we cared. Now that it is all over we will carry on with our normal lives and leave you to do the same.”
That is when you need someone the most. Because now you are all alone and you don’t know what to do with your life. You have to start again but you don’t know where or how to do it.
This is the most important stage of counseling that is needed. If you have done the funeral, make sure that you make an immediate arrangement after the funeral to go and spend time with that person to counsel with them.
Now is the time they are going to need your advice and your wisdom. Because then is when a lot of voices are going to come and start giving them advice – usually all the wrong advice. They need someone who is in control and who knows what they are talking about.
My Experiences With Bereavement
If you have been through the death process you know what I am talking about. Thank the Lord I have never faced that kind of death yet, where someone as close as a spouse has died.
My father was the first one in my family who died, but we had already been apart for a while. He was living in Canada, so I didn’t have quite that close communication with him. I didn’t see him on a daily basis.
The same thing happened a little while later with my elder brother when he died. It was the same situation. I just had the memories and the times that we had together, so I could in my own experience examine some of the mechanics.
However I did get first hand training after I went through a divorce. I experienced the trauma and the grief of a divorce which as I said is very much like a death.
Then I met Daphne who herself had been widowed. And so I had a chance with her to have firsthand training.
I didn’t meet her just after the funeral. It had been a while since it happened. But I could just as well have met her after the funeral, because she had made no progress at all from that time until we met.
She needed someone to be there to take her through those stages. So I thank the Lord that we could learn some of these mechanics together. I have a few experiences that I can share concerning what happened with her that might help you in the process.
So I have had a bit of experience with the whole counseling thing. But I can’t say I personally handled the stages. This is because if you are not that close to the person, those grief stages don’t take place.
There are other complications that take place in a grief situation. I did have some of those and I will share them with you shortly
../ Go to Part 2