"Grief Counselors Will be Available to Meet With Students..."

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It has become all too familiar: violence taking place at a high school, death a sudden tragedy... students alarmed beyond imagination... teachers suddenly realizing that life will not be the same any more…parents deeply anguished... press people trying to represent the facts accurately… communities absorbing the reality of death...

But even in the most distressful situations, life must be resumed. And as the authorities announced the re-opening of the school, they added this detail which they gave due attention: “Grief counselors will be available...”

I have of wondered what grief counselors do.

I realize that their presence is important. I also realize that their task is very difficult. The students need to talk. Yes, that's good. In the grief counselors those students find people who are ready and willing to sit down with individual students, or in little bunches. The students have many things on their minds. Friends may have died, and, any way, why did they die? Why not me? Regrets too. The bafflement of a friend, a class-mate never to return...

But then I wondered… what can grief counselors say? In most cases they will not be permitted to mention God and Jesus Christ (although I know that they sometimes do). Perhaps they will tell the grieving students that it is all right to feel fear, and anger, and confusion, and bewilderment. They will, perhaps, be able to speak words of hope. They can give helpful suggestions for coping with loss. Grief counselors will be good listeners. They will be sympathetic. They will help grieving students to understand their feelings. But grief counselors will also know the pain of their own limitations...

I will not for a moment imply that Christian grief counselors have an easier time of it. Several of you who read these columns will be called upon to make visits with grieving and bereaved people. These few paragraphs will not presume to make care-givers experts in comforting the sorrowing. But perhaps we can start a discussion on these pages of our experiences in bringing Christian comfort.

Here are some thoughts that come to mind. Grieving people will initially not be able to absorb the reality of their loss. In ministering to them we must remember that grieving comes in stages. Don't try to solve the problems a grieving person is now facing. But you may give some feed-back that indicates that you have heard what this person tries to tell you. 

There are expressions of sorrow that are actually not helpful. You will not correct this person, for example, but, as you visit a few more times, you may make some careful  suggestions that will open up better possibilities. Bereaved people need strength to cope with irretrievable loss. You may tactfully offer your help with some of the problems that arise. Be a good listener. But that does not mean that you say nothing. 

Sorrow is a predictable component of congregational life. The Bible says that loss will occur. And loss is being used by Christ to build his church. So take a long view. Months after your life has returned to what you think as normal, the grieving person may have a lapse, and needs additional care.

Among our readers will be several who have dealt with tragic situations. We would appreciate hearing from you.

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Having been both a griever (in the loss of a wife and daughter) and a grief counselor (chaplain), the lessons learned in CPE (Clinical Pastoral Education) training and in CISM (Critical Incident Stress Managment) training have lead me to appreciate the value of several basic things to remember in coming alongside individuals who are impacted by sudden loss or tragic events:  1) Enter this holy space with caution and awareness of your own fears and inadequacies, but with a prayer-full effort to be as non-anxious as possible in order to quietly exhibit the peace and love of God. 2) Ask for (or simply listen for) facts -- what happened to whom and how did they learn of it or observe it. 3) Only after listening to the facts and establishing some rapport ask what did this person(s) do, feel, think when this occurred? 4) Then move to what are they feeling right now? 5) Only then should you suggest -- or better ask -- how you may be helpful (with a focus on resources -- material, emotional, and spiritual -- beyond yourself and the current moment. 6) Never overlook the power of a simple, sincere prayer for God to surround and indwell the crisis with His love and grace -- whether prayed with the person (if appropriate and welcomed) or after leaving them with assurance that you will personally continue to hold them up to God's throne.