By Michael J. Brooks
Correspondent, The Alabama Baptist
Around the holidays or anniversaries or even when you least expect it, grief can hit hard.
And Steve Sweatt says the church is uniquely equipped to help grieving people find renewed hope and healing from loss.
“A loss is separation from a person, place or thing we value.” said Sweatt, a licensed professional counselor in his 21st year as clinical director of Community Grief Support in Homewood, as he spoke to the monthly meeting of Shelby Baptist Association’s Pastors Fellowship on Jan. 2.
That loss could be anything from losing a job to losing a spouse to death or divorce, he said.
“Grief is an involuntary response to loss,” Sweatt said. “Grief can manifest itself in unique ways. Sometimes a person may be prodded by a memory, a shared place, an article of clothing or a song and break down in tears.”
Mourning is what we do with our grief or how we give expression to it and it is more intentional, he said.
“Structure is important in mourning,” he said. “A person dealing with spousal loss, for example, might take on new responsibilities with grandchildren or volunteer for a specific ministry at their church. Hobbies can help or an exercise program. These are intentional activities to help manage grief.”
Sweatt said social support is important in mourning too because grieving people need access to a network of caring friends.
That’s where the church comes in.
“Of course, the church is ideal for providing this network,” he said. “There are probably numbers of people in most congregations who have experienced similar loss and can offer friendship and encouragement.”
Sweatt said a grieving person needs three kinds of friends.
“First we need friends who listen understandably,” he said. “They let us bring up all the emotions we feel without being judgmental. Having a friend like this is truly a gift from the Lord, and talking to our friends about our love for those we’ve lost is a healthy thing. And true friends let us talk about our anger too. This gets the ‘bile’ out of our system and we can feel better.”
Sweatt said the old adage is true — “a grief shared is a grief diminished.”
The second kind of friend is one who helps with material aspects of loss, he said.
“A widow or widower might need financial counsel if the spouse took care of the money, for example,” he said. “Some people in loss have no idea how to handle tax returns, and some don’t know about minor home repairs. Good friends can offer counsel in this regard. I sometimes refer to this group as a ‘grief garden’ since they help us with the maintenance of life.”
The third kind of friend is one who “distracts” us, Sweatt said.
“This friend knows when we need to get out of the house or go shopping or walk in the park,” he said. “I call this ‘coming up for air.’ Grieving people sometimes brood alone and may turn to alcohol or drugs in their loneliness. There are, of course, healthier ways to deal with loss.”
Help from those who care
Sweatt said a pastor or other caring Christian might initiate conversations with a grieving person who is “isolating” by staying away from others.
“A caring friend might say they’ve noticed this isolation and offer to find a person to talk with so that the grieving person can get better,” he said. “This is a significant ministry within the spiritual family as we live together and care for one another.”
Sweatt said a final way the church can help is to accentuate the “metaphysical” aspect of life.
“Grieving people who have a faith dimension in their lives have added resources for healing,” he said. “We call it ‘benefit finding’ when a grieving person can say and find comfort in ‘he’s not suffering anymore now’ or ‘she made a profession of faith before she died.’ And praying, meditating, singing and serving the Lord in some tangible way are all healthy and healing activities.”
Sweatt said the grieving process probably isn’t something grieving people completely leave behind; instead it becomes a part of their lives to learn how to deal with in constructive ways.
“Another word used in this work is ‘habituation,’ and this means the loss survivor has learned about the process of grieving and learned how to cope,” he said. “It’s healthy for those with losses to be able to talk about the loss, to name their departed loved ones, to talk about the things they remember and to express how they felt then and how they feel now. This brings us closer to the point of mastering our pain.”
Sweatt said he and other members of his organization are available to talk with church groups cost-free about the ministry of grief support.
For more information, call 205-870-8667 or visit communitygriefsupport.org.