12 June 2014 by Jason Law CM –
For many Asians, death is a taboo subject and while most religions in this part of the world seem to have answers for this predicament, many are also hostile to the process of proper and adequate grieving that is necessary for a person’s healthy and complete recovery from grief. Some groups see death as a curse, and anything that is related to death is carefully avoided. Other groups see death as a transition into a rebirth cycle based on past thoughts and actions, and abstain for one year from merry-making and excessive lamenting. Even those from Semitic religions, which include some Christians, view death as the will of God, and any excessive wailing is strongly discouraged and seen as ingratitude and opposing the will of God. Recognizing the need for proper support for those who are grieving, Dr Edmund Ng recently conducted a seminar at Grace Community Center about the Christian’s role in grief support.
We often hear that as Christians, our lives should be directed only by the Word of God, and since counseling and grief support groups are influenced and derived from the perspectives of the World, we should avoid such things like the plague. But the fact is, as humans, we all have weak moments in our lives, and are vulnerable to emotional trauma. While it is true that the foundations of a Christian’s life is based upon the Word of God, bereavement is an objective state, and Dr Edmund pointed out that the Bible does in fact espouse the case for grief support, and that there are ways to do them.
The Priority of Jesus
Dr Edmund picked the passage of Jesus ministering to Cleopas and his traveling companion on the road to Emmaus (Luke 24:13-33) to make an important point. The 2 Disciples of Christ had suffered the loss of their beloved Master in a most tragic manner, and this reunion took place on the very day that Jesus resurrected. Although this was the first day of the dawn of a brand new era, and the greatest paradigm shift for the whole of mankind, the Kingdom of God had yet to come into fullness, and there was much work to be done. Dr Edmund shared that in particular, Jesus’ generals and lieutenants were still confused and scattered. And since He was the Head of the new Kingdom, there was a need for Jesus to organize and put things into place.
The significant point in this passage is that Jesus chose to reach out to His bereaved disciples in grief support. He could have appeared to thousands in the same way He did at the Sermon on the Mount. Jesus showed us the importance of grief support, and in fact, His appearance to the disciples first indicates that this is actually part of a Christian’s calling. If we are committed to the Great Commission, a central point of Christianity, we must love others in the same way we love God (Matthew 22:39-40). Jesus is showing us that grief support of the grieving can be an important avenue for care and counsel to open the door for evangelism and subsequently the salvation of others.
The Case for Grief Support
Despite our cultural and religious mindset, numerous factors uphold the involvement of Christians in grief support:
- To unbelievers, death is a toxic subject.
The 20th century has changed the way we view death significantly. Studies have shown that in the past, during the Greco-Roman time and the early days of the Church, people related to death with a sense of acceptance, but now, the subject of death has become a denied and forbidden one.
- Christians should be at ease talking about death.
For Christians, this should not be the case. Eccl 3:2 states matter-of-factly that there is a time for everything and that death is just a normal part of life. In Philippians 1:21, Paul said “to live is Christ and to die is gain”. This attitude to death comes from the redemptive work of Christ on Calvary and the Christian’s position in Christ (1 Cor 15:55). To Christians, death is just moving on to be with God in Heaven. If we believe in the Promises of God and His Word, this gives us an advantage as ministers to those in bereavement.
- Social support for grief is critical for the bereaved.
People who have just suffered the loss of a loved one are very often in one of the loneliest moments of their life. They should be able to rely on support from those that they trust, and social support protects against major depression, post traumatic stress disorder and complicated grief, as well as being essential for a better quality of life.
- Social support for grief is becoming more lacking
As death is a culturally toxic subject, people want to move on after the initial rally of support, and the bereaved are then left much on their own to make their own way through life and bereavement. In an increasingly mobile and callous society, people who have suffered loss have little prospect for emotional support.
- People are often unprepared when death strikes
The death of a loved one often takes family members or those who are close to them by surprise. Christians who are called to have the compassion and love of God are best positioned to fill the gap for grief support.
- Multiple deaths and disasters are becoming more common.
Due to unhealthy modern lifestyles especially among the young, deaths from diseases as well as natural disasters are becoming more common. While we can view this as the judgment of God and the need for repentance, the fact is that each death also affects multiple lives. Christians must be equipped and ready to meet the opportunity and demand for such emotional and practical support services even on a large scale should a need arise.
- The Bible tells us to mourn with those who mourn.
The primary essence of Christianity is about compassion and love, and even the judgment of God derives from and has an element of His love. As such, the Bible is replete with verses about mourning with those who mourn, in the Old Testament (Genesis 37:35; 1 Chron 7:22; 2 Sam 10:2; Job 2:11) as well as the New Testament (John 11:19; Rom 12:15b; 2 Cor 1:3,4; 1 Thes 4:18, 5:11; James 1:27a).
- Grief support was the domain of the Church until recent years.
William Worden stated it very plainly; “the reality is that people seek us out for help with grieving… Earlier, people would have looked to religious leaders and religious institutions for help with their grief”. Today, in a lopsided quest for holiness, often ironically leading to self-righteousness, many of us have lost the ability to minister to others. Dr Edmund pointed out that the modern Church has lost its deep ministry of compassion to the hurting and this must be restored as a faithful practice of our Christian faith.
The Outworking of Grief Support
There are multiple ways in which grief support can be put into practice, and Dr Edmund provides a few examples:
- Psychoeducation for the Bereaved: This focus on providing education on the grieving process and grief management, and the aim is to provide understanding on the nature of grief and the necessity of grieving properly and completely.
- Training of Lay Counselors: Many researches have shown that social support from trained counselors amongst the community can be as effective as professional grief counseling services. Traditionally, the Church was the institution from which grieving persons sought comfort, and the Church must once more reach out to the wider community with a heart of compassion.
- Grief Support Groups: This provides an opportunity for grieving persons to gather together for a time of sharing and mutual encouragement. At the lowest and most difficult seasons of their lives, many unbelievers are open to know more and experience the comfort of God, opening the doors to their salvation.
- One-to-one Counseling: The grief support group may not be in a good position to address complex issues of grief that are unique to the loss or the bereaved individuals. This is where such persons can be referred to one-to-one counseling at the end of the support group season.
- Practical and Financial Help
People who have experienced bereavement have to make adjustments in their lives. Practical and financial help is extremely important, but the aim is to help them towards self-sustainability, so that they are not dependent on us.
- Spiritual Guidance: For Christians, this is the most important assistance we can provide. Dr Edmund provided much guidance about this.
When we are counseling Christians, spiritual guidance can be explicit. If the deaths are perceived as senseless, many Christians can be angry with God for failing to intervene. Their questions and complaints are often met with divine silence. As Christian counselors, we must be able to facilitate them in their spiritual struggles and lead them in the right direction. They can contend with God but not give up on Him. Our challenge is to help them emerge from their grief as a better person who is closer to God and more dependent on Him before the loss.
If those we are helping are unbelievers, our approach must be more implicit. We should always reflect on Biblical values and convictions without being imposing. We should show them agape love and care at all times so that they will experience the goodness of God through us and want to know Him personally.
- Grief Recovery and Resilience Building after Disasters: As Christians, we ought to meet the most significant need of the disaster survivors at this point of time from a spiritual perspective, not only to bring them comfort and hope, but also to address any negative emotions like anger against God for not protecting them. They need to come to terms with their losses and live on in resilience.
Compassion in Action
Dr Edmund pointed out that Luke 24 tells us that the grief support that Jesus gave to his disciples on the road to Emmaus, was one of the first things He did after the Resurrection. He places such priority on it because our God is a God of compassion, and the Bible tells us this 49 times! When Jesus was going through a time of grief alone at the Garden of Gethsemane, and while His disciples were sleeping, God sent an angel from Heaven to support Him in His grief (Luke 22:43)
In sharp contrast to the Disciples, Jesus demonstrated His heart of compassion numerous times. He was walking His talk when He comforted Cleopas and his companion, for in the Sermon on the Mount, He had said that since He has come, “Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted” (Matt 5:4). How are those in mourning to be comforted if we deny them support when they are most in need of it? The Bible makes it very clear that God wants us to show compassion to others who are in need (Zec 7:9) and comfort those who are grieving (2 Cor 1:3,4), and we must have the Father’s heart of compassion for people.
1 Cor 13:1-13
If I speak in the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but have not love, I am nothing. If I give away all I have, and if I deliver up my body to be burned, but have not love, I gain nothing. Love is patient and kind; love does not envy or boast; it is not arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful;
1 John 4:7-10
Beloved, let us love one another, for love is from God, and whoever loves has been born of God and knows God. Anyone who does not love does not know God, because God is love. In this the love of God was made manifest among us, that God sent his only Son into the world, so that we might live through him. In this is love, not that we have loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the propitiation for our sins.
Adopted from Dr Edmund Ng’s talk and article ‘Grief Support: An Avenue for Care and Counsel in Mission for Christ in Asia’ (Copyright 2014).
(1) DeSpelder, L.A. and Strickland, A.L, (2110). The Last Dance, Encountering Death and Dying, 9th Edition
(2) Vanderwerker, L.C. & Prigerson, H.G.. (2004). 'Social Support and Technological Connecdtedness as Protective Factors in Bereavement' in Journal of Loss and Trauma, 9, 45-57
(3) Ng, E (2011). The TIME Approach to Grief Support, An Easy Technicque for Every Christian. Enumclaw: WinePress Publishing, xvii
(4) Worden, J.W. (2003). Grief Counseling and Grief Therapy. New York: Brunner-Routledge, 4.
Note: Dr Edmund Ng is a Christian Counselor and Certified Thanatologist (Grief Therapist) with postgraduate qualifications in Ministry (UK), Counseling (Aust) and Thanatology (USA). A former pastorand business CEO, Edmund is the President of the National Association of Christian Counselors Malaysia and Founder of GGP Outreach (www.ggpoutreach.com), a community-based non-fee paying grief support service ministering to hundreds of grieving people who have lost their loved ones. He has published a book entitled The TIME Approach to Grief Support.
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