When Death Comes Unexpectedly

Janet Chismar | Senior Editor, News & Culture | Thursday, August 2, 2001

When Death Comes Unexpectedly

While this article first appeared on Religion Today in August, we felt the information could be useful now for friends and family of those killed in the terrorist attack on America.


"My best friend, when I was about 19 or 20 years old, died in a very violent way, and I just didn't have the emotional capacity to deal with it at that point in time," says Bill Dunn. "Then, 15 years later, I am in the pastorate and another best friend dies. The waves of grief just started overtaking me."

Dunn, who now heads a ministry called GriefShare, said he responded "in a typical male fashion - in all the wrong ways." He stuffed it down, feeling helpless in knowing there wasn't any action he could take to change things.

"And I was actually ashamed at how much this was bothering me," Dunn adds, "because I was thinking, 'This guy's a brother, he's a Christian, he's with Jesus. Why am I going through this?'"

He realized the earlier loss had risen to the surface. "It was almost like the Lord wanted to bring me up-to-date." Dunn says he slowly began to process both deaths, learning a lot, not just about grief, but about being human and dealing with emotions in an honest way.

According to Dunn, men often have a more difficult time grieving. He explains that men tend to deal primarily with information, not emotion, in their relationships with other men. So men go into grief without any sort of preparation, while women already will have an emotionally supportive network in place.

"Men try to do the same thing with grief as they do with the rest of life," says Dunn, "which is to process it as information. Then they think, 'I've processed the information, let me get back into life.' And that doesn't work."

The inability to express grief openly isn't solely a male-female issue - often it's generational. One 68-year-old woman came to GriefShare because she lost her husband and her mother in the same year. In learning to process those losses, she realized she never grieved the child she lost 40 years earlier. At that time, she was not "allowed" to grieve the child's death. "In those days," the woman shared, "you just went right on and nobody ever talked about it."

Dunn says that more women attend the GriefShare groups, although the men who do go admit they receive the same benefits. "Just getting the guys there in the first place is the main hurdle."

Healing Together

Some 1,700 churches around the world offer GriefShare groups. The 13-week study combines three elements: a video series, a workbook and a discussion/support group. "Teaching and instruction are essential to help people grieve, but lack the heart and emotional care a support group can provide," says Linda Moore, a GriefShare consultant.

Conversely, a support group without instruction can quickly deteriorate without guided discussion. By combining instruction and a support group, GriefShare provides the balance that creates meaningful ministry.

Another key distinctive, says Moore, is that GriefShare is Christ-centered. "True healing from a hurt as deep as the death of a loved one must be built on a relationship with Jesus Christ."

The Bible is presented as the practical guide to grief recovery in the GriefShare video series and workbook, she explains. Group participants learn that scripture provides essential guidance on topics such as grieving, loss, emotions, death and eternal life.

Dunn and his wife, Holly, co-host the video portion of the program. As an emergency room physician, Holly has seen grief at its precise, definite point. She may not know the family before or after, but sees them at the critical moment of death.

The video contains testimonies from the likes of Joni Eareckson Tada, H. Norman Wright, Larry Crabb, Elisabeth Elliott, Jack Hayford, Bill Bright, Kay Arthur, John Trent, Cindy Morgan and many others. It also includes testimonies from people whose names may not be recognized, but who have journeyed through grief and have a story that will encourage others.

Group facilitators often have experienced a death and healed enough to help others. They don't have to be experts, nor put the program together. They just have to be the warm, caring heart.

Some of the leaders have lost a child to murder or suicide; some have worked through the grief associated with miscarriage or stillbirth. "We are constantly amazed at the testimonies of these GriefShare leaders," says Dunn. "The testimonies that we get-they have lost children or parents or spouses - your heart just aches for them. Then you realize that God took them through that and now, they are helping others. It's a constant reminder of God's goodness and grace."

Good Grief

Unresolved, unexpressed grief can trigger a host of problems. Granger Westberg, author of "Good Grief," said that while working as a chaplain in a medical center, he became aware that many people were ill as a result of unresolved grief. "There is a stronger relationship than we have ever thought between illness and the way a person handles a great loss," Westberg said in the introduction to his book.

Westberg, a Lutheran pastor, died of leukemia in 1999. He was a pioneer in the field of pastoral care, where he made many contributions during his ministry of more than 50 years.

The goal of Good Grief Groups, started by Cecil Fike who studied with Westberg, is to create an atmosphere in hospitals, churches, funeral homes, and other organizations in which those who grieve can find healing. This is accomplished through mutual support, sharing and understanding from other members of the group, along with the materials presented in a workbook.

The workbook materials are written so that the groups can be lead by ministers, parish nurses, social workers, chaplains, Stephen's Ministers and others who have group leadership skills. Experience and training in psychology and counseling are helpful, as are specific education and experience in grief management. Training for leaders is available from the author.

"Grief is a necessary part of emotional healing," says Fike. "The grief process is difficult. The emotional wounds are deep and painful. Our pastoral care ministry is a helpful tool to those who are grieving. It is a well thought out program to help people realize that there are good ways to grieve."

Each group session includes lessons on specific topics relevant to the grief process, along with homework assignments and journaling suggestions.

Examples of topics include attributes of healthy grieving, stress management, and dealing with holidays and anniversaries. A session on the Four Tasks of Grieving follows an outline provided by J. William Worden in his book "Grief Counseling and Grief Therapy." Special attention is given to adjusting to the physical and emotional changes brought on by the loss.

One session is devoted to the unique grief process resulting from sudden or catastrophic losses. External factors such as media coverage and legal activities can prolong the grief process. This session helps the participant recognize the symptoms of complicated or morbid grief experiences and know when to refer for more intense therapy.

Understanding that children also grieve and are greatly affected by losses of loved ones is essential for anyone who works with children and their parents. Therefore one session looks at the children's grief as influenced by their age and developmental stage.

Whether someone chooses a Good Grief Group, GriefShare, or one of the many other resources that are available, grieving with others is a key step in healing. "As one is able to think, talk, write, and weep about their loss they will be able to move beyond grief to Good Grief," adds Fike.

Related Links:
Good Grief Groups
GriefShare
New Hope Center