‘Hatched,matched and dispatched ’-many people outside the church still want a ceremony to help them mark significant moments in their lives.More churches now run marriage preparation classes and baptismal courses but how good are we at helping people through death and bereavement?Christians have a radically different view of death to those with no faith but does that make us any better at offering support and hope?
Ana Draper trained as a nurse and worked for five years in Accident and Emergency.Death was a normal part of her working life but she didn ’t find the church helped her to deal with the experience.
“Seeing someone of your own age die can be very traumatic and can have a huge impact on how you perceive life.I wanted to be able to talk about that with other Christians and process it as part of my faith,but other people just found it too embarrassing and weird,” she says.. She retrained as a counsellor and now works full-time,co-ordinating bereavement services for the South-West Herts Bereavement Network and the local Hospice.Ana deals with referrals from GPs,health and social workers and others through a central telephone line.There is a whole range of services available from befrienders,self-help groups,counsellors, family therapy teams and a grief programme for children called STARS.
Not all calls are about recent bereavements -one woman recently contacted the network when she had a baby.Her own mother had died when she was a child,and the birth of her daughter had triggered deep feelings of grief.Most of the people who contact the network do not have a Christian faith,and not surprisingly Ana has met some Christians who feel very angry at the way they have been treated by the church following a bereavement.
“One man felt very hurt that people had said to him ‘Come round for a meal any time,’but had not offered specific invitations.He felt there was a veneer of caring,but everyone expected him to be all right.” Death is still a taboo subject in our society.There is no specialist bereavement service nationwide within health or education,and it doesn ’t appear to be on the government ’s agenda at all.Ana feels that the church has a lot to offer in this area.But she says,“I do think the church could be more counter-cultural in the way it deals with dying and the care it offers to people.”
Sheenagh Burrell is part of a network trying to do just that.She co-ordinates Help in Bereavement,which is run by volunteers from three churches in Ealing, West London.It was started 15 years ago by Christians who were aware that the needs of bereaved people in the community were not being met.Some were gravitating towards the churches looking for help,but there were few people equipped to help them.
Sheenagh ’s own involvement came through the death of her friend ’s mother. She explains,“She had ovarian cancer and her dying was unlike anybody else ’s dying that I had seen.This was partly because she was a Christian,but also because she was a bereavement visitor and knew how to prepare people around her for her death.She had nine grandchildren and each of them had a special time alone with her.She told them that she hadn ’t got long to live,gave each of them something special to remember her by,and also gave them a book of photos she had of each of them as babies.That level of care was also extended to her children ’s friends,like me.Her dying was a gift to everybody who loved her and I wanted to discover how she was able to do that.”
Bereavement visitors from the network visit those who request help at least four times in their own home.Professional counsellors are available but most grief is very normal.Sheenagh says,“The vast majority of people that we meet don ’t need professional counselling.They need debriefing -being able to talk about the death and the dying,the funeral and their own feelings.People have to live and function with their own families and often don ’t want to burden each other.They need someone else to listen to them. Some people are very disappointed by the church ’s reaction.They expect that listening to happen as a matter of course,but often it doesn ’t.”
This is partly because people simply do not know what to say to someone who has been bereaved.But it can also be because of theology.Believing that a Christian who has died has gone to heaven can lead to feelings that grief somehow shows a lack of faith.Ana ’s experience is that the church can use spirituality to shut down things that seem too painful to be talked about. “There has to be a balance,” she says.. “The person who has died may be in a better place,but the people who are left here need to be able to mourn -to go through the despair into hope.We need to give people permission to express their loss.”
Sheenagh believes that the church needs to relearn the art of lament.“We are much better at celebrating,but lament is very biblical.I suggest that people read some of the sad psalms that ask God why he has forsaken them.Those feelings are not something to be frightened of -they are normal.Caribbean funerals do seem to embody corporate lament,following the journey of those psalms.I went to one that started with people expressing their shock and grief,asking God why it had happened,being honest about the struggle.
The vicar had a wonderful ability to hold that and draw it into the next stage of the journey.From that sense of dereliction we began to remember her as a person,and we became a little more at ease. She was irrepressible and you couldn ’t think of her without being happy at some truly wonderful memories,whilst still being in a place of grief.And then there was a sense of choosing to move forwards with God -still not having any answers, but trusting him.”
Through her contact with bereaved people,Sheenagh became fascinated by the link between funerals and grief. Where a funeral had been authentic and expressed grief about the person ’s death, the mourning process did not seem to be so difficult.She was completing an MA in Pastoral Studies at the time and discovered that some of the most pastoral funerals were humanist ones!
“As a Christian I felt that was extraordinary -I believed that was the church ’s role,”she says.“What made them seem so pastoral was the focus on the person ’s life that had been lost in many churches.In a church context a funeral has a dual function -it ’s a liturgical process as well as a pastoral one,and I don ’t think we have always got the balance right.” As a lay reader,Sheenagh has now taken two funerals and is aware of how much work they can involve but believes the church has a great opportunity for generosity and hospitality at the time of death,rather than funerals being seen as a burden.
“Time given to a family during the planning of a funeral to make it personal would be an enormous gift that would really help the grieving process to begin.” Chris Spittle has been a curate at St Oswalds,Netherton in Liverpool for the last 18 months and in that time has taken over 100 funerals.He believes that taking a funeral is the biggest privilege of being a minister.
“It allows you into a close family circle to talk about deep issues of eternity and to provide solace,which can be a very powerful experience.”
The parish that he works in is very large and contains estates that were built about 40 years ago.Many of the people who moved into the new homes have now reached old age and are dying.Usually Chris doesn ’t know the people whose funerals he takes,but will visit each family to find out about the person who has died.
“Using the families words at the funeral can be very powerful,”he says,“and then to offer a glimpse of Christian hope.”He will do a follow up visit,and is looking to set up a pastoral team who can do more after-funeral care.
People ’s grief will be very different depending on the circumstances of the death.Perhaps one of the most difficult situations to deal with is the death of a child.Peter and Barbie Reynolds have set up a Bereaved Parents Network with CARE for the Family,having experienced the death of their own son, Simon,several years ago.
Simon was working in South Africa when Peter and Barbie ’s first grandchild was stillborn just before Christmas. Travelling back to be with the family, Simon was in a road accident and died. Peter recalls how for the next six months he didn ’t want to live.
“I wasn ’t particularly angry with God,” he says.“I just didn ’t know how I could come through that experience and wanted to talk to people who had.”Meeting other bereaved parents through two CARE for the Family weekends led them to set up the network.“Parents found that other people in the church just didn ’t know how to cope with them,and I don ’t blame them!Bereaved parents can be very prickly people,and I count myself in that category.Most of us find that people give us a wide berth,or change the subject if children get mentioned.We want to talk about the children that we have lost,but we don ’t want to hear people saying inappropriate things,“says Peter.“The network offers telephone befrienders -parents who have also lost a child and can offer support.Last year over 120 people attended a special day,organised because parents were concerned about how their other children,especially teenagers,were coping with the loss of their sibling. How else can churches help to support those who have been bereaved?
Sheenagh would love to see more people get involved in bereavement visiting. “The gift of time coupled with the ability to listen rather than talk is often healing in itself,”she says.“People often need a stranger to talk to and to express their anger or negative feelings,sometimes several times,before they are ready to move on.Are we able to give people that time?” Sheenagh is a great advocate of this visiting role.“It ’s the oldest cliché,but everyone who is involved in this work says,‘I have been given more than I give ’.”
Her involvement in bereavement care has really helped her to appreciate life. “So many of us,particularly in London, postpone our lives.We are always going to do something next year,next summer holidays.For me the lesson has been to savour each day,and to tell friends and family how much I value them.Often it ’s tragedy that promotes that telling.” Many of us feel awkward when we meet people who have been bereaved, and that awkwardness can make us seem uncaring.The important thing is to make contact,to say something and allow people to talk.
In Peter ’s experience early grief can seem all-consuming.“People need to be given permission to hurt and to cry. They need to be able to talk about their loss,and that can feel very self-centred for a time.”
Providing practical help for a bereaved friend will be easier for some people. “The bereaved still have to go through the mechanics of living,”explains Sheenagh.“Turning up to a friend ’s house with a pot of stew and giving them a hug can be a great help.We also need to be prepared to weep with those who weep,to share their grief.”
People grieve very differently -some people may have come to terms with a death one year on,but many have not. There are a multitude of losses in each death,and anniversaries,Christmas,significant birthdays or holidays can be very poignant and difficult times.“Many people find that they get lots of calls in the first six weeks and offers of help,”says Ana,“but after that they are left alone.” Ringing a friend,sending a card,or inviting someone for lunch on the anniversary of a death can be an important way to show that you haven ’t forgotten, and gives permission to talk about the person who has died.
The church also has a role to play in education.Death and bereavement are rarely addressed in sermons,but talking about the issues in a church community could be really helpful.Sheenagh ’s network is also providing in-service training for schools called ‘Aware before the Event ’.
“Schools have a pivotal role in dealing with bereavement,”she insists.“Most schools hit tragedy during the year -perhaps a parent dies,or a member of staff. Grandparent deaths can also hit children very badly,but often that is not noticed.” Ana has produced a pack of materials and a programme called ‘Stars ’that help children to cope with bereavement. Children are encouraged to talk about their special person who has died,to think about what they have learned from them, and the memories they have of them. They are also helped to think about the support they can find around them through family and friends.
Help in Bereavement holds an annual memorial service each year,when people who have been helped through the network can come and remember those who have died and be prayed for.This year over 250 people came who do not normally attend church.
“It’s wonderful to see people that we have visited in the past,”says Sheenagh. “Some people come just once or twice, and some come back every year to hon- our the person who has died.Many peo- ple contribute poems or songs -it ’s a very special time.”
Perhaps the greatest gift that the church has to offer at a time of death is hope,but it ’s also a gift that needs to be offered very sensitively.Offering time,support and hospitality to those who are facing death and bereavement could mean more opportunities to share in the rest of their experience of life.