The words of his story stick in his throat as Roger tries to swallow his emotions. His wife Elaine has died four months ago; the fresh pain being unleashed as he finds a willing listener in me.
Elaine had been chronically ill before her death, but Roger’s role as caregiver has ended abruptly. Two weeks after her funeral, he finds himself in need of his own caregiver when he falls and breaks his leg, requiring surgery and rehabilitation.
Some of it is a blur as he tries to retrace the facts; but one thing is adamantly clear as his voice deepens and he stands tall saying, “I will never go back to my church as long as I live!”
Digging deeper into his story, Roger tells me the priest didn’t call or visit him while hospitalized. There wasn’t a follow-up call to check on him after the funeral, nor any contact made until four-months later when the priest asks, “Whatever happened to Elaine’s memorials for the church, we haven’t received them yet?”
Roger’s fist is clenched and his jaw locks as he describes his feelings about that phone call. He is hurt that he was never asked how he was doing and that his grief wasn’t recognized.
A week after that life-changing phone call, Roger’s neighbor invites him to a grief support group at her church and he accepts. He feels welcomed, supported by the parish nurse and the other men and women he meets who have lost their spouse.
Roger is given a safe place to express his feelings, and even when he talks about being angry at God, he is not shunned. Others admit similar feelings and questions about faith are explored, not denied.
The memorial contributions are mailed to the church where his wife’s funeral took place, but Roger is no longer a member. He has found a new community of faith, a place of love and compassionate care. Thanks be to God!
For the last twenty years, I have heard similar versions of this story as I journey with those who have lost a loved one. The deceased is a spouse, a child or a parent and the church leader is a priest, pastor or a rabbi.
It doesn’t matter.
What matters to those who are grieving a loss, is that they have a safe environment to openly discuss their grief – which may include anger at God. The most therapeutic message (from the stories I have heard) is that their faith leaders did not preach theology or say that they had all the answers; rather, they offered compassion and acceptance along the way.
Offering prayer support and understanding at a time when the bereaved often cannot pray for themselves or attend church has been helpful as well. Given adequate time to grieve their losses in a supportive environment, people are more likely to return to their faith and their places of worship. Even those who struggle with their faith after the death of a significant person, if supported in a therapeutic way – will worship again and often report a deeper, personal relationship with their Higher Power.
Roger turned away from his church only to find another where he felt accepted and supported during an extremely difficult time in his life. He felt like his priest and those in his first congregation “just didn’t get it.”
What about you? Has your community of faith supported you during your loss? What has been helpful or hurtful during your journey through grief? I would love to hear from you!