Ministering to the bereaved is one of the most difficult yet rewarding responsibilities faced by new pastors. Those who are grieving the loss of a loved one are often very receptive to a pastor's care, comfort and counsel. A caring pastor who is properly trained and equipped to minister to the bereaved can be an invaluable resource to grieving people who are going through one of the most difficult experiences in life.
The most important thing a pastor can do for those who are grieving the loss of a loved one is simply to be there. You can't bring the loved one back, nor can you make the loss hurt less, but you can be there to offer support and comfort while the bereaved go through the grieving process. Ideally, a pastor should make contact with the family of the deceased as soon as he is aware that a death has occurred. In your initial contact with the bereaved, it is best to simply identify with their grief and make known that you are there to help and support them in any way they may need.
If you are asked to conduct funeral services, you will generally be responsible for overseeing the ceremony. This may include arranging for music, eulogizing the deceased, delivering a funeral sermon and conducting a graveside service. Depending on the family's wishes and your church's traditions, you may delegate some of these responsibilities. Unless the family requests otherwise, you should attend showings or wakes. Offer condolences and make yourself available if anyone needs support. It's best to be low-key and stay present but in the background unless your services are requested or obviously needed, especially if you aren't personally acquainted with the bereaved. If the family asks someone else to conduct the funeral or memorial services, respect their decision without taking it personally. If you were the deceased's pastor or are pastor to grieving family members, it is still appropriate to attend the funeral and offer support.
Most pastors receive training in grief counseling prior to ordination. If you have not received adequate training to offer effective grief counseling, acquaint yourself with the grief counseling resources that are available in your area. Offer the level of counseling you are competent to give, and be willing to refer the bereaved if they need counseling beyond your training and experience. Pastors who are not trained to offer actual grief counseling can still offer sympathy and support. At the very least, this can include offering the bereaved the comfort of your shared beliefs.
Visiting the Bereaved
It is appropriate for a pastor to visit the bereaved before and after the funeral. Ideally, you should visit the family within a day or two of the funeral, a week after the funeral and again two or three weeks after the funeral. You may make additional visits periodically if your services are needed for moral support or in helping to deal with the grieving process. Often pastors can offer greater help in the weeks following the loss of a loved one than during the funeral proceedings. This is because the bereaved are often in a state of shock or denial in the days immediately following the loss of a loved one and because they are often too busy with the flurry of activity that surrounds losing a loved one to process their feelings. A pastor who makes herself available to the bereaved in the weeks after the funeral can offer a great deal of comfort during the difficult days when the grieving family members are learning to adjust to life without their loved one.
- Brandywine Pastoral Institute: Grief and Loss in the Congregation
- Lumen Christi Catholic Church: Bereavement
- funeralwise.com: Funeral Etiquette for the Bereaved — Planning the Funeral
- LifeWay: What Can a Pastor Say to the Grief Stricken?
- Enrichment Journal: Understanding and Surviving Grief
- christianfunerals.org: The Role of the Minister in Bereavement
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