A last will and testament in the nineteenth century often began with the words: “Knowing the uncertainties of life and the certainty of death…." The certainty of death has been a human constant since the fall of Adam and Eve into sin. Yet in the twenty-first century, death often seems a taboo subject. Even the word "death" has become infrequent in our speech. People “pass on" or “go home" more often than they die.
Our avoidance of death as a subject means that often we do not know how to speak to those who are grieving. What should we do as individuals and as Christian communities to offer comfort to those who mourn?
That is a question that must be addressed in every church. It is a question that each of us will encounter in our lives. It is a question that we seek to prepare our graduates to face in their ministries.
To help us think about that question, I interviewed a good friend of Westminster Seminary California, Mrs. Hilda Ozinga. Mrs. Ozinga’s husband, Norman, died in 1982. He had had some medical problems, but his death was quite sudden and unexpected. Mrs. Ozinga, in her early fifties at the time, began the long and difficult process of grieving. Over the years she has spoken and taught about grieving, drawing on her own experience and that of many others.
Dr. Godfrey: Tell me something about the process of grieving.
Mrs. Ozinga: There is no definite process that everyone goes through in the same way. You cannot put the process in a box. Those who are grieving experience different feelings at different times. People often feel numb initially and may seem to be doing “fine." They feel lonely, obviously. They often feel angry, sometimes at God and sometimes even at the one who has died. They can feel withdrawn and depressed.
Often the experience of grief becomes worse after six months or after a year. The initial numbness and the support of family and friends wear off. You begin to realize that your situation will not change. You are alone and your spouse is not coming back. The permanence of the loneliness is almost overwhelming. Many widows have told me that the second year alone is harder than the first, but most people do not recognize that and begin to think that you should be “over it" by then.
You never really get over it. The pain becomes less over time – for some people a great deal of time – but it never really goes away. This year – after being alone for 22 years – I found my wedding anniversary a very difficult day. That love never goes away, and so part of the pain is always with you.
Dr. Godfrey: What did you find most helpful to you in your grief?
Mrs. Ozinga: Friends and family who were there with me were wonderful. Those who encouraged me to talk about my feelings in an honest way and encouraged me to talk about Norm helped the most. Many “little things" were a great comfort: a hug, an arm around the shoulder, a card, an invitation out for coffee or a meal, someone saying, “I was thinking about you this week." No one can take the pain and grief away, but acts and words of kindness really do help.
I have also found that conferences on grieving and church grief support groups can help. To be able to talk to those who are experiencing some of the same things that you are helps you to realize that your feelings are not bizarre or unique. It also gives you the opportunity to help others who are alone.
Still the loneliness is great. You don’t have someone to share your experiences with. You are on your own.
Dr. Godfrey: How did you find ways to cope with loneliness?
Mrs. Ozinga: Many of us who lose a spouse have never lived alone. We lived in our family, then perhaps in a dormitory and then got married. Living alone is not easy and you never get over missing the person with whom you could always share your life.
Learning to do things alone was a great challenge. I used to dread – and sometimes still do – going places alone. The world often seems made for couples. Even to go to church and sit alone is hard. Going into a restaurant alone was difficult. They always say, “Table for two?" and when I say, “No, for one," they get a funny look and give you a bad table in a dark corner. But I have learned just to go, take a book and sometimes ask for a better table. And they give me one.
Weekends are the hardest times to be alone. I have learned that sometimes I must take the initiative to call friends and suggest activities together. Often people who are grieving do not feel up to taking the initiative and withdraw into themselves. Then it is especially important for friends and family to give advice and support to be active and do things.
I have a friend who seemed to be doing wonderfully after the death of her husband for about six months. I did not say anything to her, but I warned her family that at some point the bottom would drop out. Well, it has happened. I am trying to be there for her and encouraging her to do some things, even though she initially says she does not want to do anything. But when I tell her that I will go with her, then she is willing.
Dr. Godfrey: What were some of your greatest frustrations as you were grieving?
Mrs. Ozinga: It was frustrating to find that some people I knew stopped talking to me. I know that they just did not know what to say and did not want to upset me, but it really hurt to feel ignored. Some talked to me, but always wanted to avoid talking about my feelings or about Norm.
I also found it very hard to be around people who thought they were encouraging me by quoting verses from the Bible. At one point I thought I would scream if one more person said to me, “All things work together for good." I knew that was true and I took comfort from Bible verses that had meant a great deal to me throughout my life, but I felt those quoting the Bible were avoiding me and my pain. It was very difficult.
My worst frustrations, however, were with the church. The church, in my experience and that of many others, fell flat on its face. The minister did not visit me for weeks. The elders did not know what to say if they did visit. The deacons never asked about whether I had any financial needs or concerns that they might help with. They just did not seem to know at all what to do to help the grieving.
When the minister finally did visit, he said, “I know how you feel." That really upset me. He did not know how I felt; he had never lost a spouse. But he continued to insist that he did understand. About a year later he admitted that he had been wrong to say that.
The officers in the church need to be trained to understand grief. They need to learn to listen and be sympathetic. They need to realize that grieving people are not always rational. They are a great comfort when they visit just to say that they are sorry.
Dr. Godfrey: Why does the church seem to fail so in this area?
Mrs. Ozinga: First, as I said, leaders in the church need to have training. If you have not experienced the loss of a spouse, of course you do not understand what someone is going through. The church needs to talk and read and prepare to help those who are mourning.
Second, I fear that the church has so focused its attention and energy on evangelism that it neglects to care for its members. I remember one widow asking me if she could ask me a personal question. She asked if the minister ever came to see me. I said, “No he didn’t." She replied that she was glad to hear it because the minister never came to see her either and she thought she had offended him.
Churches need to make pastoral care a much greater priority in ministry. They need to invest time and resources there. They especially need to remember that after six months someone grieving will probably need the ministry of the church more not less. If elders and deacons would make some contact every two weeks or so, it would be a great support.
Dr. Godfrey: Thank you very much for your candor and insight.
Mrs. Ozinga’s willingness to share her experiences and reflections with us is a great help as we face grief. Grief is a pain that will not just go away and is a reality from which we cannot hide. She reminds us of the importance of community – especially the Christian community – in such difficult circumstances. Indeed, if we as Christians do not help those who are most in need among us, how can we claim to be a community at all? We speak a great deal of the love of Christ and of the importance of showing that love to the world, but if we do not love our brothers and sisters in concrete ways, our claims of love are very hollow. Knowing the uncertainties of life and the certainty of death, let us strive to be an effective community of comfort. Then we live out the words of Paul, “Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of compassion and the God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our troubles so that we can comfort those in any trouble with the comfort we ourselves have received from God."(2 Cor. 1:3,4)
First published in Evangelium, Vol.2, Issue 6
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