See you in September

One of the most gratifying areas of my ministry over the last two years has been found in an unexpected place – the church’s grief support group.

Leading a grief group wasn’t even in my job description when I started.  I just noticed a large number of grieving people in my church – women and men – and decided to offer a safe place twice each month for conversation, support, prayer, and (can you have a church meeting without them?) snacks.

And nearly two years later, to my surprise, we’re still going strong.

Yesterday we had our last meeting before taking a break for summer, and we promised to start again on the first Wednesday in September.  The thinking was that so many people go away for all or part of the summer that attendance becomes erratic.  Better to close it down for the summer and start up again in the fall.

I was wrong, as I often am about these things.

Our turnout yesterday was nearly the best of the year, second only to the Wednesday just before Christmas, which is traditionally a tough time for people who are grieving.

What happened yesterday?  I’m not sure. Our regulars were there, of course, but so were some new people – not even church members, but a few people who had heard about the group and decided to give it a try.

The meeting yesterday might have been the best one of the year.  We talked, as we always do, we told stories, we read some words for each other that we had come across and liked, we cried, and – you might not believe this – we also laughed.

Anyone walking by our meeting room yesterday might have been surprised by all of the laughter.  Really?  That’s a grief group?

I wasn’t prepared for it, either, but laughter has become a regular part of our group life.  I hear laughter at funerals, so I know that when people tell stories about loved ones who have died there is bound to be some humor.  What I hadn’t expected was to see and hear people with raw feelings of grief suddenly give in to laughter.  For many of them it’s the first real laughter they’ve experienced since the death that plunged them into grief.

What have I learned after two years of listening to people in grief?  More than I can write in one blogpost, certainly, but here’s one thing that comes to mind: no two people grieve in exactly the same way.  Grief is different for everyone. My response to loss is going to be different from yours. And yours will be different from mine.

I suppose I had expected some rules and patterns to emerge – like the Elisabeth Kubler-Ross formula of denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance.

But the surprise (to me) is that no pattern fits everyone.  We are all, apparently, as different in our grief as our fingerprints and our DNA.  Some of us grieve long and deep. Some members of the group experienced their loss four or five years ago and still need to talk about what has happened to them.  Others, in contrast, seem to bounce back relatively fast.

What may be a common experience for everyone who grieves is the need to acknowledge – to someone – the deep pain of it all, the emptiness that will never, ever be filled again, and the sadness that no amount of comfort will take away.

One member of the group has said to me that he had tried a grief group sponsored by a local hospice, but that he quickly found it unsatisfying because there was no faith component.  My group definitely has a faith component.  We open and close in prayer, of course.  And not surprisingly, we talk about our faith – sometimes about how our faith is tested by suffering and death, but more often about how our faith comforts and gives hope.  Faith is both in the background and at the center of our times together.

I learned long ago that people who grieve are at their most vulnerable – and therefore their most authentic, most honest, most transparent.  When we grieve, everything else is stripped away. Putting up a front is nearly impossible for a person in grief.  And the result in many ways is wonderful.  I find myself wanting to be with these people.

As I write this, September seems a long way away.

About Doug

I have been a writer ever since fifth grade when I won second prize in a “prose and poetry” contest. I am also a Presbyterian pastor, and for several years toward the end of my career I lived and worked in Zürich, Switzerland. I am now retired and live just north of Holland, Michigan, along the lake.

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