Ask Deborah: "addressing community grief".
QUESTION: I have found some information on Grief on the Church Health Reader website. This is a big issue in my church at the moment. Five or six youth in our community at large have died in the past year, tragically--in a town of about 12,000. Many of our youth within our church knew some if not all of these young people. In addition, our 53 year old pastor just died a couple weeks ago. I have other materials, including a bereavement file provided by my sponsoring hospital [Marion General Hospital: Parish Nurse Program, Marion, IN]. I have ordered a supply of "CareNotes" from Abbey Press that have not yet arrived. On "All Saints Day," we invited families who had experienced loss to our service.
I would like to see "Ask Deborah" address this topic. In the weeks prior to our pastor's death, I have used the IPNRC's Seasons of Wholeness newsletter articles on healing, which are excellent. Any supplementation would be appreciated.
ANSWER: First of all, my deepest sympathies to you, to your congregation, and to your community. You have suffered tremendous losses through the tragic deaths of these young people, and the sudden death of your pastor in the prime of life, in a very short time. Please know that those who read this, along with me, will hold you and your community in prayer.
In recent times, when so many have been quickly swept away by tsunamis, floods, and storms, it feels overwhelming. When the unexpected and untimely deaths arrive so close to home, as it has with these devastating losses in your own church and town, people begin to suffer true shock. At this point, it is important to make available all sources of comfort and sustenance, including food and warmth, which you surely already have provided, and will continue to provide.
How good that you have held an "All Saints Day" service a few months ago, which I am sure provided a great deal of healing. You may also want to consider offering healing services on a quarterly, or even monthly basis. Something as simple as a Taize service can be very comforting, or you may want to offer the option for laying on of hands/blessing, or anointing at services, depending on your denominational traditions and/or preferences.
You also may want to open your sanctuary during the daytime and early evening hours for quiet meditation, and arrange to have the phone numbers of counselors available. Leave business cards so that people can take them with them and call at their convenience. I am sure you post the hours when you are available for consultation yourself. Perhaps an elder or deacon could be available for all the times that the church is open, in case someone needs a listening ear.
Depending on how the young people died (suicide, car accidents, etc.), you may want to act quickly to provide education to prevent such tragedies in the future, but doing so in a manner that does not further hurt their families. For example, in the case of suicide, part of that education must be on ending the stigma around accessing mental health care, and opening up the possibility of talking about mental health issues in the community. Information to good health and access to quality healthcare are key. If you don't have such care available, your church may want to partner with an organization in another town to arrange for a provider to travel to your congregation one evening a week. Talk about whatever has been happening to bring healing and validate the experiences people have been undergoing, as well as to prevent future tragedies.