Monday, June 8, 2009

Pastoral Counseling to Those Mourning Death


It is the solemn duty of every pastor to visit the sick and dying and attend to those grieving at the passing of loved ones, Matt. 25:36-40; Ezek. 34:1-16, James 5:14,15; Is. 38:1; 2 Cor. 1:4; 1 Thess. 2:11. Death is the final enemy and its victory is surely won in Christ Jesus whom swallows up death with His own death. The church is bound up in Christ and shares in His death and resurrection. Counseling those grieving involves keeping them in this gospel – this hope and ultimate truth that defines all history. In addition to this confession, pastoral care and counseling must closely observe the daily grieving process and ensure that the most basic needs are met with the help of the community.

Pastoral care must make an allowance for the disorientation of death. Disorientation may be permitted to stand as a natural processing of the trauma. Pressuring despondent mourners into a premature state of resolve only inhibits true healing. Though the Pastor is to bring hope and comfort for those suffering, his work is not to forcefully move someone from a state of disorientation to a state of orientation. The pastor proclaims the hope of the resurrection and eternal life in Christ and encourages the bereaved to draw strength from Christ’s word and sacraments in the fellowship of the congregation. Orientating the grieving toward Christ’s saving word does not necessarily result in the state of orientation that is naturally desired by those providing care.

When dealing with tragic and unexpected deaths, those grieving are in most cases experiencing a barrage of spiritual affliction, including anger, despair, guilt, and the deepest sort of physical suffering. There are deep fractures in every human relationship and the interruption of an unexpected death lobs a debilitating series of questions and doubts toward the grieving family, “is he is heaven?” or “did he know how much I loved him?” Guilt accompanies those whom deeply regret withholding their love prior to the loss. There are many things not said – important fractures not resolved. The grieving may cry out, “If only I had…said this or that before he died.” These fractures and the resulting disorientation must not be artificially patched over with any common human wisdom. It is only God’s forgiveness and great creative work that will grant the only true balm and healing. Pastoral care and counseling must proceed from this bold confession, that Christ alone makes all things new, healing our wounds with his, actively attending the brokenness and anxiety of human relationships and the terrible interruption of death.

Those helping people grieving with the death of a loved one ought not provide explanations for the tragic death and why it may have occurred. It is often a common reaction to desire to provide reasons for the tragedy, how it may be “God’s will,” attempting to feverishly recast the tragedy into something that may not be so tragic after all. This is a natural human reaction experienced by those who want to comfort someone grieving. It is difficult to encounter suffering and takes a sort of discipline to refrain from offering false hope and empty therapeutic measures. Though the motivation may be pious, this sort of theological speculation is inhumane as an authentic address of pastoral care. The old Adam – the man of sin - always wants to “make sense” of his world – assign meaning to every phenomenon in the universe as it relates to God’s omnipotence and sovereign will. This is a mistake in counseling those grieving over death, or in any spiritual situation. The church’s theology does not decipher God’s inner workings and precise meaning and motivation for each tragic and horrifying event that takes place on a day to day basis.

A loving and pastoral counsel to the grieving must avoid such platitudes and trite explanations as “Everything will be ok,” “At least he didn’t suffer,” “you’ll get over it,” and “I know how you feel.” Though all these statements contain certain elements of truth and the possibility of therapeutic value, they somewhat trivialize the event of death and seek to “move beyond” it or transcend it, thus passing by its significance. This will be a common temptation by caregivers to provide such empty admonitions about death in a desperate attempt to evade the real concerns of those grieving, particularly, “where is he now?” When Saint Paul writes that “all things God works for the good” (Rom. 8:28), he is not speaking in some vague stoic fashion about God’s sovereignty in the universe. He is speaking only about the resurrection of the dead and the life to come through the atonement of Christ and the outpouring of forgiveness flowing from His cross. That “all things work together for good” is not some new age “power of positive thinking” spiritual tip to navigate through tough times in life. All things working together for good is a summarizing commentary on the atonement and the dialogical grieving between God and His creatures, whom both long to see each other as was originally intended, “yet in my flesh I will see God; I myself will see him with my own eyes” (Job. 19:26-27). 

In a post-Christian culture, it is common to deny death altogether, or oppositely to naturalize it as if it were no different than the withering and dying of a flower. Care for the those mourning ought not compromise their confession in order to bypass the tough questions about God, sin, death, faith, and grace. What is true is that death was not built into God’s creation; death violates human life and is completely and utterly devastating. Human sin caste the world into discord, violence, strife, and ruptured the relationship between creator and creature and man with his fellow man. The silence following death speaks of the bitter finality caused by the rupture of death on this side of eternity. This brokenness will not be restored on this side of heaven. God’s dear Christians whom receive him are planted in heaven. Saint Paul writes, “So it is with the resurrection of the dead. What is sown is perishable; what is raised is imperishable. It is sown in dishonor; it is raised in glory. It is sown in weakness; it is raised in power. It is sown a natural body; it is raised a spiritual body” (1st Cor. 15:42-44). The so called dignity and worth of dying saints is not established by any certain quality which exists in and of themselves, however much we would like to claim otherwise. The loveliness of a man or woman is granted by God’s spoken word which poured out man like milk, clothing him with skin and flesh, bones and sinews (Job. 10:11). Jesus is the very source and fountain of life from which all life does proceed. Christ does not improve life or modify it but speaks it into existence. Therefore the dignity of dying lies in the fact the man is a spoken Word by God, breathed into existence by him. The loveliness of death comes only from Christ’s advent – His incarnation into the world to rescue humanity from the deadly curse of human sin.

The fracture between God and man and then between man with his fellow creatures in open rebellion cannot be closed by any act or discipline of man but only by God. Pastoral counseling must insist that God will bridge the gap of death and reunite lost inhumanity solely by his work on the cross, apart from any performance on man’s part. God’s baptizing and holy word of forgiveness is what breaks through and unites humanity forever with him in the great halls of heaven. From the starting point of God’s action, practical advice may be given to sustain the mourner in his time of grief.

Encountering the death of another involves a physical loss. The interconnectiveness of human relationships is not just communicative and oral but physical. This is not just true for married people and family members but even friends and acquaintances. We long for the body and person of another, the physical proximity of another. This is not at all something to be ashamed of. The mourning process often involves physiological consequences that are particularly adverse to the body. The physical trauma often involves decreased functioning in such basic activities of eating and sleeping – whether they be either severely neglected or over indulged. While pastoral care may support making certain allowances for the natural disorientation of death, it must take a more proactive stance toward meeting the most basic demands of the body. Healthful eating and sleeping must not be compromised in the grieving process. For this reason pastoral care may involve ascertaining that the grieving person be surrounded by a network of support that can keep a watchful eye on such daily functioning. If such a network of support is not present, it is not beyond the pastor’s pay grade to intervene and establish the needed network by way of willing servants in the church community.


The intensity of the grieving is often highest during the initial weeks following the funeral. Though the funeral is often viewed as the most emotionally intense period of grieving and separation, it is much more so the time following, particularly for those closest to the deceased. The time between the death and funeral is usually a surreal and peculiar experience that often times cannot wholly grasp what has happened. The flooding of sympathy from family, friends, co-workers, and acquaintances keeps the mourner occupied with the communal implications caused by the death and moves into a sort of autopilot reaction. Making plans and arrangements for the funeral further occupies the mourner with responsibilities that temporarily takes attention away from coping with the totality of death and its meaning. When the funeral has passed and the last sympathy card opened the mourner returns to daily life as it was before, and only then encounters the most bitter distress of death.


It is in this stage of grieving that pastoral care and counseling is most dearly needed. Pastoral counseling may, contrary to alternative theologies and psycho-therapeutic techniques, encourage a person to be vulnerable to their pain and anger. Christians do not need to “take control” of the situation and willfully change their mood or perspective upon the deep rupture of death. Pastoral counseling may, however direct the frustration toward the one whom can truly mediate through the rupture of death. For this reason Dr. Richard Eyer writes, “It is a goal of pastoral care to encourage complaint to God, even in the form of anger. To whom else can we go when really frustrated and frightened than to God? God can handle it.”


Therefore, pastoral counseling may facilitate a prayer life that directs complaints and even anger toward God. Contrary to pietistic notions of prayer, Christians are not called to always speak to God in carefully premeditated delicate language. Mourning and the prayers of frustration and sorrow may be a shriek of pain or anger that may very well sound impious and demonic. God desires to hear not just pious spiritual platitudes when times are good but truly longs for receiving us in great love even in our most angry and bitter estate. God invites us to challenge him in delivering His promises and hold him accountable (Ps. 31:2). Those grieving over the death of a loved one cannot make a harmonious synthesis of God’s promises of everlasting peace while He has simultaneously taken a saint away even in a most tragic death. Christians need not be forced into a stoic submission to God’s will, but are rather invited to consider the contradiction between the peace of God and his hiddenness in that he ends life in ways that are far from what seems peaceful or merciful.


Pastoral counseling ought to gently point to the sound and word of lament, that weeping may become a song of praise. Besides encouraging spontaneous ex corde (from the heart) prayers pastoral care ought to provide a theology of lament and hand over its voice to those suffering. Encouraging use of the psalter and the church’s liturgy is a great blessing for God provides us with the very words of lament. Psalms of lament and such liturgical treasures as the litany can explicate the condition of the grieving human heart more accurately than our own internalized analysis of what we think we may be experiencing when encountering such terrifying loss. Pastoral counseling to those dealing with death must also make frequent use of the sacred hymns of the church. Before I “talk things” out with mourners I must first sing them and pray them. The more I mine the riches of the Lutheran hymnals it becomes much more evident that single stanzas of Lutheran hymnody can simultaneously diagnose the despondent human heart and meet it with a pure preaching of the Gospel that would exceed any manufactured wisdom that I may manufacture on my own. It would be foolish not to make constant use of singing and praying the timeless hymns of the church to those who are dealing with the death of another. Two hymns that stand next to each other in the Lutheran Service Book provide an inexhaustible resource for consoling the grieving, “Entrust Your Days and Burdens,” and “In the Very Midst of Life,” (LSB 754-755). It is not enough to be familiar with these hymns. Internalizing them and speaking them as prayers recasts the heart and mind into the living, breathing doctrine of Jesus and His work.

When we press into God for mercy and healing we hear Christ’s Holy Absolution, “I forgive you all your sins,” we hear the words of the last day and are made members of heaven whom will be resurrected from the grave. Where there is forgiveness there is life, salvation, and the resurrection of the dead. The rupture of death is calmed and stilled by this Gospel and nothing will be lacking. The fissures caused by death and the anxieties that come when dealing it are repaired by this life saving word.


I have dealt more in depth with suffering in Pastoral Care of Lament HERE.

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