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A Chaplain's View On Initial Grief

It’s 2:30 in the morning and you are with a family. The medical team has been working on the patient, a middle-aged man, for the last hour. They have just “called” it: the person has died. With no more medical work to be done, now is the time for you, the chaplain, to step in and give the family the news. As you approach the new widow, she realizes who you are and that things have settled down with the medical crew. She lets out a loud scream when she sees you. Your heart is broken. Everybody is taken aback. The crew, knowing that you will be taking care of the family, just wants to slink out the back door. This initial chaos at the time of death can be emotionally disturbing for all involved. As a chaplain, you will be with these people for the next few difficult hours, though in the back of your mind you wonder how they will do after you have left. Will they have a “good grief” in the loss of their loved one, or will they get stuck in their grief and never find closure? Is there any way we can tell, now? While it may be too early to predict what way someone will go in their grief, you can encourage a number of things in this time of initial grief which will promote healing in the future. The American Psychological Association has put together a list of ten factors that can help at this time. Here’s that list, along with some comments of my own.

1. Make connections. Grief in seclusion rarely brings good healing. We as chaplains can and should encourage family members to reach out to other family members, friends, and to the church. We may only walk the first few steps with them, but others will be able to walk with them long term. We should, though, be careful in who we encourage people to connect with. Any strains in family dynamics might be magnified at this time. Encourage family members to connect first with those who can come alongside them in a supportive manner. 2. Avoid seeing crises as insurmountable problems. I have heard family members say that they feel as if God has abandoned them. Now is a good time to remind them that God is present, that He still loves them (and the deceased), and that He will not abandon them in their time of need. Such a message doesn’t need to be preachy. In fact, preaching tends not to come across well. The sheer fact that you are God’s person in this situation declares to them that God is there and that He cares. Care for the family in the same way you know God also cares for them. This may just mean letting them cry on your shoulder and crying with them. Remember how Jesus wept at the loss of his good friend Lazarus. 3. Accept that change is part of life. While I would never tell a family member that they should just accept change because it’s a part of life, I would affirm those statements if they make them on their own. To tell a family member to just “get over it” or not to cry would be heartless and not acknowledge the gravity of the situation. There is a time to cry and mourn the loss of their loved one, and this is the time for that. Yet the trauma of the loss does bring about a new reality. To affirm their realization that things have changed will plant seeds for the future when they are ready to consider the new reality. 4. Move toward a goal. Sometimes what we see after the death of a loved one can only be described as shock. The family member seems to shut down. If this is a death in the field (outside of a hospital), their response can further hinder the work of first responders. In such cases, the family member is usually still in “911 mode.” I often harness that energy by directing it toward gathering up paperwork or medicines that may be needed for the investigation. When the most important things are accomplished and/or energy levels have dropped, this is the time to move towards a more self-reflective mode. Over the next few hours, you may encourage moves toward next steps, such as thinking about funeral arrangements. Moving toward little goals will help a person feel like they are more in control and help prevent them from getting stuck. 5. Take decisive actions. Even during the initial time of grief and shock, it will sometimes be necessary to help people take decisive action. Often people have never been in a situation like this one and will need to lean on you as a newly trusted friend to support them in making decisions. It is your calling and privilege to walk beside them and help them in their time of weakness. Realizing that they are not powerless but actually have the reserves to do what needs to be done will help them in these initial stages of grief. 6. Look for opportunities for self-discovery. In many cases, a family member’s identity has been so wrapped up in being with their loved one that they may wonder who they are or will be without this person. Affirm comments of self-discovery they may make while at the same time remembering the one they have lost. Honoring the memory of the deceased at this time and his or her place in the lives of those left behind honors them as well. Down the road, there will be plenty of them for them to explore self-discovery on their own. 7. Nurture a positive view of yourself. In times of grief, and maybe other times as well, it is said that we should speak three positive words for every word of sadness or regret in time of grief. This isn’t to dismiss the grief, but to instead reframe it in a way that still acknowledges what has happened. Often people play “what if?” games as they look for a way out of what has happened. "What if I hadn’t gone to the store?" "What if I hadn’t taken that nap?" These statements can have a positive affect in the short run if the crisis is still at hand, but they tend to have very little benefit in the long run. If they called 911 right away, affirm it. Did they try rescue breathing? Did they do CPR? Did they care for their loved one in their last days? Affirm these things. All too often people look back hoping that they can somehow go back and change a decision and somehow change the outcome. Looking back like this in order to change the current outcome will lead to people to be stuck in their grief. Looking back this way can only be beneficial if it leads towards future growth (e.g., learning CPR so they can use it at some later date). 8. Keep things in perspective. We as chaplains have a wonderful opportunity to lay foundations of grace and forgiveness. While this is not a time to preach, it is a time to affirm the truth of grace and forgiveness and live it out in our words and actions. When the opportunity for forgiveness between two people has been removed due to death, this can lead to people being stuck in their grief. At these times it is good to encourage people to explore the depths of their faith and look to understand grace and forgiveness. This will allow them to put past situations into new perspective. 9. Maintain a hopeful outlook. This principle applies not only to the family you minister to, but to you as well. Some deaths, such as those of young children or people we know, can be very disheartening for the chaplain, too. It is easy to be enveloped in the depths of grief if we lose perspective. But we as chaplains have the hope that is found in our faith. We don’t necessarily need to teach this on scene, but it will be conveyed by who we are. It is the hope of our faith that sustains us and will help sustain family members in their initial grief. 10. Take care of yourself. Too often we hear of people who hit the bottle after the loss of a loved one. Doing so tends to numb a person’s emotions so they cannot feel the pain of loss. Unfortunately, as the saying goes, you can pay the piper now, or pay the piper later, but you will pay the piper. Repressed emotions may resurface in awkward ways and at inopportune times. So be sure to take care of yourself as well as to encourage healthy expressions of self-care commensurate to where they are in life. This may include counseling, exercise, or growing in their spiritual life. » Learn more about the Road to Resilience (APA).

Chaplain Chris Wade, Vice President

SC Public Safety Chaplains Association

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