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Jill Sullivan is a 40-something mom from Arkansas who is married to a high school principal and has two daughters. Her oldest daughter went to heaven in February of 2009, following a year-long battle with brain cancer.  She blogs about what God has taught her (and continues to teach her) as He brings healing to her heart and life.

I’ll be the first to admit it. They scared me. I mean they really scared me. I would see them coming down the hall at church, and I’d duck into the restroom or suddenly “remember” something I’d forgotten in my Sunday School classroom. If unavoidable circumstances brought us face to face, my tongue would go numb, my throat would close off, and my eyes would fill with tears. I would choke out some inarticulate expression of sympathy and make a quick get-away.

Who had the power to evoke such an anxiety-filled response in me? Bereaved parents. I was scared to death of parents who had lost children. I could not begin to imagine the magnitude of that type of loss, and I had no idea what to say to them, or what NOT to say to them. What if I said the wrong thing and added to their pain? Or what if I was about to say the right thing but couldn’t because my own tears made it impossible to talk, making everyone uncomfortable?

And then I became one of them. At the age of 16, my daughter Hannah was diagnosed with Grade IV glioblastoma multiforme, a highly aggressive form of brain cancer. After a year of radiation and chemotherapy treatments, she stepped into the arms of Jesus, and I suddenly became what I had feared the most…a bereaved parent.

Our family returned to church less than two weeks after Hannah’s death, and now I was on the other side of the pew, so to speak. Now I was the one that people either avoided or clumsily tried to comfort, all with the best of intentions. I found that, just like me, most people had no idea what to say or how to say it. They loved me, they were grieving with me, but they didn’t know what to “do” with me.

Our churches are full of people who are hurting, many of whom have lost children or other loved ones. For me personally, returning to church was one of the most difficult things to do after my loss, and I’ve talked to many other bereaved parents who have expressed the same thing. Why is this?

  • Families tend to sit together at church, and when your family is missing someone, their absence is particularly acute in the pew. Looking around and seeing other intact families worshiping beside you can also be very painful.
  • The songs we sing in church can bring up very strong emotions. Songs about heaven can conjure up an almost unbearable longing in our hearts, and songs of praise can be difficult to sing when your heart is broken.
  • There is an unspoken expectation at church that everyone is filled with the “joy of the Lord.” You know what I mean…we put on our best clothes and our Sunday School smiles and give the appearance that all is right in our world. A grieving parent may simply not have the emotional stamina to play that role.

So how do we as the body of Christ reach out to bereaved parents and give comfort without adding to their pain? Here are some suggestions from someone who’s been on both sides of this dilemma:

  • Be patient with them. Grief is a marathon, not a sprint, and it’s important to respect the fact that people need time to heal. The grieving parent may not be ready to resume regular church activities right away, whether that’s teaching Sunday School, singing in the choir, working in the nursery, or greeting at the door.
  • Grief comes in waves. Don’t assume that a person is “over it” if you see them smiling or laughing, and don’t assume that a person is “not doing well” if you see them grieving outwardly.
  • They may not be interested in small talk. Someone who has lost a child is grappling with deep spiritual issues and may not be interested in shallow conversation. Listen to them if they want to talk, and don’t feel that you need to answer all their questions. Remember how well it went over once Job’s friends started talking!
  • Grieving people are vulnerable and often hyper-sensitive, and they may have been hurt by things that well-meaning people have said to them. Some of those things might include:
    “I know what you’re going through. My grandmother died last year.”
    Something along the lines of “God always picks His best flowers first” or “God must have needed another angel in heaven.”
    “She’s in a better place.” (There’s nothing really wrong with that because it’s true…it’s just that the grieving person really wants their loved one here with them!)
    “It’s a good thing you have another child.”
  • They also may have been hurt by those who have intentionally avoided them or who have said nothing to them at all. So what should we say to a grieving mom or dad?
    “I love you, and I’m praying for you.”

That’s it? Could it be that simple? Yes, it really is. This statement, maybe accompanied by a warm hug, is all that’s needed to assure a bereaved parent of your care and concern.

Finally, while we want to give bereaved parents plenty of room to grieve, we also want to reach out to them with the expectation that God will bring healing into their lives. And when God brings that healing, as only He can, we will find that these folks can come out of their experience with a stronger faith, a deeper understanding of Scripture, and a greater passion to serve the Lord than ever before. It’s our privilege, as the body of Christ, to walk beside them in love.


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5 thoughts on “How to Help Bereaved Parents in Your Church”

  1. David Starchman says:

    Thank you for this, Jill. It is a blessing to me and by extension those to whom I minister.

  2. P.K. Spratt says:

    Well said. After losing a child and also being on ministry staff in a local church the greatest thing one can say to a grieving parent is that. “I love you and am praying for you.” My wife and I have experienced too many uncomfortable comments from concerned members wanting to say the right thing but it comes out wrong. Also, being on church staff, I felt as if I lived in a glass house and for a period of time I just wanted to close the curtains. On the flip side of this, my church family, especially small group carried us through this difficult journey.

  3. I also lost a son to a glioblastoma multiforme. It is highly unusual to meet another mom who can say that, and I was so surprised to read that you also lost a child to gbm. I’m so sorry that you also have had to walk this journey. Everything you wrote resonated with me. Church was extremely difficult on so many levels…the songs, the awkward people, the memories of having my son with me there, etc. It is so good for people to learn how to minister to those who are grieving. I was absolutely horrible at it before I lost Joseph. I’m still probably not that good at it. But I’m not scared to talk to grieving people anymore since I’m one of them. Thanks so much for writing.

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