I tell this to people who say they’re not qualified or sufficiently skilled to minister to people who are in the raw pain of grief; “Qualified and skilled people don’t always know for sure what to say. Your caring presence is among the most important gifts that can be given.”
And I say, “People in pain aren’t usually in the mood to discuss philosophical or theological reasons for what has occurred. Warmth and companionship are the best medicine. And you are qualified and skilled to provide warmth and companionship.”
I encourage people to just let the upset person know that you are there and supply immediate needs: “If someone is crying and wiping his or her nose with the back of his or her hands while receiving a line of compassionate people, rescue with a tissue. That solves their predicament and embarrassment, and they’ll so appreciate it … and remember it.”
I was privileged to be a godsend at a graveside memorial I wasn’t conducting. After the funeral service, anticipating swarming mosquitoes, I dropped by a store and purchased three cans of repellent. Then I posted myself in a kneeling position at the entry to the cemetery. As people walked through the gate, I sprayed their ankles. Pants offer little protection, and dresses and skirts offer no protection.
My ministry was that of supplying an immediate need. Although I had the counseling experience to offer condolences, protecting people from getting chewed up during the minister’s reading of Psalm 23 was the best way I could serve. Besides, no one was of a mind to turn aside for a counseling conversation.
Sometimes, I plan to phone the grieving person three weeks after the death. Lonesomeness for the loved one hits hard after survivors again return to work and school, leaving the grieving person alone for longer spans of time. Or, I send a sympathy card with my phone number and offer to be available for a visit. Readers are competent to do the same.
If you take a cup of water to a grieving person being greeted by loved ones and friends, stay near until he or she drinks as much as desired and passes the cup back to you. That’s because hugs of compassion are awkward to receive while juggling a drink.
It’s in small things that one can have important ministry. I always notice and appreciate the individuals on committees in churches who provide tuna and pimento cheese sandwiches and other finger foods after funeral services. They put together nice selections, they are empathetic hosts and hostesses and they are skillful at designing heartwarming centerpieces.
Now about manners:
When speaking with a grieving person, don’t hold up the line by initiating a conversation. Be respectful of those waiting in line. Remember, the person to whom you are talking might be emotionally numb.
When greeting, don’t get right in his or her face. Reasons are such as these: Your breath might not be minty fresh. He or she might wonder if his or her breath is OK. He might be self-conscious, as a man, crying in public. She might be self-conscious, as a woman, her makeup needing a touch-up. He or she might be uncomfortable with people inside his or her psychological space.
When shaking hands, don’t show your strength. People get hurt when they aren’t braced for a tight grip. Older people might have painful arthritis in their fingers.
When hugging, hug lightly and briefly. Don’t hold a person beyond his or her comfort level. He or she doesn’t know when he or she can pull away without seeming unreceptive.
Don’t ask, “How are you?” That’s a bewildering question; the answer seeming obvious. It’s better to say this: “I care about you, and I’m sorry for what you are going through.”
Be careful about asserting, “I understand.” Grieving people have told me, “No one understands what I’m feeling. My pain is individual.”
What is said on TV during traumas is ever appropriate: “Please know that you are in my thoughts and prayers.”
These guidelines will be helpful to readers who minister with their presence. Thank you for being there for those who grieve.