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My dad died two days ago. I am sitting in the chair where I always sit when I come to visit. His chair sits across from me. His chair is empty. I though this would be a good time to reflect on grief and what small groups can do to comfort one another in times of grief.
As soon as I got the news I hopped in the car and started the 600-mile journey North to Colorado. I thought I would put on some Fernando Ortega music of old hymns with haunting melodies. I thought it would help in my grief. It didn’t. It was too much. The grief was too raw.
I went to another strategy—denial and distraction. I know I can’ stay there forever, but I thought I needed a little time before I processed the grief.
I found a Carey Nieuwhof Leadership podcast. He, along with David Kinnaman from the Barna Group were interviewing Rick Warren. All about the pandemic and the riots and racial tension and the church’s response. “This is great,” I thought, “something to distract me from my aching heart.”
For about an hour Rick talked about talked about church stuff. Then, he turned a corner. He started talking about the grief people will inevitably feel from missing so many things—missing the prom, missing being able to visit the hospital, missing gradation. David Kinnaman talked about his wife’s death only six months earlier. David asked Rick, “How do I keep going? What do I do? And to all of us as leaders who are going through a year of so much loss, how do we find our North star?”
From there, Rick went into the most detail description of his son’s death that I had heard. He tells how his small group supported him in the most difficult chapter of his life. There are lessons here about how your small group can help in times of grief. Here is an excerpt:
He’d [Rick’s son, Matthew] struggled with mental illness since a baby. He’d struggled with clinical depression since a young child and had been through… When he was 17 years old, he came to me in tears one day and said, “Dad, it’s real obvious. I’m not going to be healed. We’ve been to the best doctors. I’ve had the best therapist, the best counselors, the best prayer warriors praying for me. Dad, you’re a man of faith. Mom is a woman of faith. It’s real obvious. I’m not going to be healed. Why can’t I just go to heaven right now?” That’ll break your heart, as a dad to have your son say those kind of words to you and me in tears sobbing back said, “Matthew, I don’t think you really want to die. I just think you want to ease the pain.”
So anyway, he made it 10 more years. He was very courageous, but that night he went home and then we didn’t hear from him for 24 hours. And so Kay and I began to be worried because that was very rare. And we drove over to his house.
His car was in the driveway. The door was locked. We didn’t have a key to his house. And we’re standing there fearing that what we’d feared might happen someday and what we prayed would never happen someday. And we called the police to come and break down the door and we’re standing there sobbing, holding each other, my wife and I, sobbing and Kay was wearing a necklace that had two words on it that was the title of her most recent book at the time. And it said, Choose Joy. And I said, “How do you choose joy when your heart is breaking in a thousand pieces? How do you choose joy when your heart’s breaking in a thousand pieces?”
Well, the police came, broke it down, found out that he had shot himself. It was a mess. We couldn’t even go in to see it. Within about 15 minutes my small group was there. I don’t just believe in small groups. The group I’m in, I’ve been in 18 years. My group showed up on those door steps. There was nothing they could say that was going to encourage me. What they did was hugged me. The guys got around and hugged me and the girls got around and hugged Kay. And then they said, “We’re not going home tonight. We’re staying at your place.”
“You don’t have to do anything.” They slept in the kitchen and on the sofa. They said, “We’re just going to be here with you.” That’s the power of koinonia. That’s the power of community.
The deeper the pain, the fewer words you use. If you are talking to somebody who had a bad hair day, you can talk to them for 30 minutes. But if they just lost a wife or a son, you show up and you shut up. There’s nothing you can say that will help. They don’t need your words. They need you. It’s the ministry of presence. Pastors and people always go, “I didn’t call them because I didn’t know what to say.” Don’t say anything. Show up and shut up. It’s the ministry of presence. Just be there.
Show up and shut up. That is what your small group needs to do in times of grief. The deeper the pain, the fewer words you use.
Thank you, Rick, David and Carey for helping me in my time of grief.
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