Pastor, the people in your congregation and community are hurting. By March 2021, one in five Americans had lost a loved one due to the pandemic. Research suggests that, for each of the 750,000 Americans who have died from COVID-19, nine “close kin” are left bereaved. That’s nearly seven million people who are actively mourning the death of someone they loved whose life was claimed by a shockingly cruel global pandemic.
These already staggering numbers don’t yet account for the non-COVID-19 deaths that occurred during the past two years. Those who lost family members and close friends to circumstances other than the novel coronavirus still had to account for its presence as they grieved. Millions had to postpone or forego funerals and other rites of grief, including sitting in the same room together for hours to cry, share stories, and keep each other from mourning alone. Even now, as restrictions have lifted, people remain cautious about comforting one another—Can I hug you? Do you want me to come over this week or are you not doing that yet? Should we meet outside?
Many who are facing these compounded experiences of grief don’t know how to cope with the pain and complexity. Some want to throw themselves back into jobs, social lives, and routines that feel familiar, in hopes that doing so will help them reclaim what they lost. Others feel disoriented and confused, dissatisfied with the support they’re receiving from family and friends and unsure how to regain a sense of stability without their loved one.
For church leaders, this grim landscape can seem barren, especially when many pastors are dealing with exhaustion, worry, and stress. The thought of ministering to a community full of bereaved people may sound overwhelming, maybe impossible.
But Jesus’ yoke is easy, and his burden is light, especially when it’s shared. Even while carrying their own grief, pastors can care for others, offering the church as a place for healing. The gospel brings hope to people shattered by the loss of a loved one, and you have the opportunity to invite those from the community to come and process their pain, ask questions, and seek answers in an environment where they wait to be found. At a time when people in your church and community are hurting, hopeless, and grieving, grief support groups led by lay leaders (or church staff) are one of your church’s greatest tools for outreach.
Why Grief Groups Are Effective
Throughout Scripture, God displays his desire for humanity to face the difficulties of life in close community. Psalm 34 tells us that the Lord is near to the brokenhearted. As his image bearers, we can trust that our calling is to come close to the bereaved as well.
Take the account of Lazarus’s death in John 11. Lazarus has already been dead for four days when Jesus arrives, and, in their grief, Mary and Martha are angry. They believe that if Jesus had come sooner, their brother would still be alive. Their mourning is palpable, filling the air between them and the Christ who, from their perspective, could have stopped the greatest tragedy of their lives from occurring.
Rather than chastising Mary and Martha for their expressions of grief, Jesus weeps with them. He bears witness to their pain and feels it himself, creating a safe place to feel, express, and share deep grief.
And then, after mourning with them, Jesus raises Lazarus from the dead.
Why didn’t Jesus raise Lazarus the moment he arrived? Why didn’t he heal him from afar, or prevent Lazarus from getting sick altogether? All of this was in his power, yet he chose to allow an entire family to grieve instead.
When he came to them in their time of suffering, he entered into it with them, further revealing the character of God. This story detailed in the Gospel of John provides a dual purpose for grief groups, modeling both discipleship and outreach. Jesus’ response in this passage urges us to care for one another, not rushing past tragedies and losses but bearing witness to them and sharing pain with one another. This is the power of Christian grief groups: They provide a safe, communal space to feel and express loss, thereby revealing the character of God both to those in Christ and to those yet to know him.
Lean on Me
Research shows that support groups focused on specific issues tend to bring about a long list of benefits in their members, including improvements in psychological and spiritual wellbeing, a heightened feeling of togetherness, and greater communication skills, hope, and relationships. But it isn’t just modern research that shows this truth—support groups in local congregations throughout the country demonstrate the same.
Marc Sundstrom, a pastor in South Dakota, has seen the incredible impact that such a group can have.
When his church first considered offering GriefShare, a recovery support group for people grieving the death of a loved one, Sundstrom wasn’t sure if people would come. But a fellow pastor at the church encouraged him to give it a try, so Sundstrom decided to go for it. Soon after the church posted about the ministry on their church’s sign that faces a busy intersection, they started to get phone calls inquiring about the first group meeting.
“Each session that we’ve run it, we’ve had anywhere between 10, 12, maybe 15 people,” says Sundstrom. “And less than half of them are from our congregation; the majority are coming from the community. So finding them at that point in their life and providing them Christian community, providing them hope, providing them the power of the gospel to restore and to rebuild is a really powerful opportunity.”
Through the group, those who do not know Christ have been introduced to the power of the gospel and the depths of compassion God has for those who are hurting. And people who have spent decades without a way to name their pain have been given those critical tools and a safe space in which to wield them. Christ followers also benefit as their eyes are often opened to the many ways in which their faith addresses their grief.
Grief can easily overwhelm those who try to engage their loss without resources or community. But grief groups begin to fill the empty toolkits of the heartbroken, providing them with language and coping mechanisms for their moment of suffering along with maintenance tools for engaging grief in healthy ways for years to come.
One of those tools is perspective. These groups teach how grief often seems immense and never ending. Instead of believing they are weak for experiencing pain, members are able to assess the impact of their loss on their minds, bodies, and spirits. From there, participants learn how to set goals, manage relationships, and make needed decisions, such as how to handle their deceased loved one’s belongings. They are given language and resources for responding to feelings of false guilt or anger, as well as how to deal with nightmares, flashbacks, and trauma.
As these tools and more fill the toolkits of the bereaved, participants find themselves better able to survive, even looking forward with hope to the next chapter of their lives—and all the more the life to come in eternity.
Fred Lodge, a pastor in Georgia, says that the conversations facilitated through his lay-led GriefShare groups have led several at his church to salvation. One widowed man was suffering from grief compounded by a confused understanding of eternal life. In addition to talking to him one-on-one, Lodge introduced the man to the grief group where he came to understand the compassion of the gospel. The man came to faith in Christ and was baptized into the church family.
One key to successful ministry through grief groups, Lodge says, “is not having five or six pastors in there doing this, but having lay people on our [grief ministry] team who have suffered through grief themselves.”
Like Jesus weeping at the home of Mary and Martha, grief support groups display the fullness of the human experience, inviting people to find hope in the power of the gospel and comfort of community.
Inviting Your Neighbors into Healing
By inviting people into settings that acknowledge their unique struggles and losses, pastors and church leaders communicate the welcome that Jesus extends, an invitation that says, “Come to me, all who are weary and heavy laden, and I will give you rest.”
In groups like GriefShare, your congregation can invite the community to join you in the journey toward healing. These groups are accessible, able to be held at convenient times to accommodate schedules or even hosted online.
Church Initiative has everything you need to start a GriefShare group in your church. If you can identify a lay volunteer or staff member who is willing to facilitate, GriefShare has resources that are readily available. In fact, you can start with a free download that shares 3 simple steps to launching a lay-led GriefShare ministry.