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  • July 11, 2014 - Reflections

    By Jean S. Horner
    The other day while walking down a corridor in a public building, I saw what appeared to be someone walking toward me. On coming closer, I found it was my own reflection in a huge mirror. For a moment it frightened me. Somehow a full-length reflection of one’s self is a startling thing. ...

In the Presence of Grief

Christians provide healing and compassion to the bereaved

By Christina Quick
July 25, 2010

Brenda Spina, a therapist who often counsels grieving clients, knows what it’s like to walk through the valley of the shadow of death.

Spina, an Assemblies of God minister and co-director of the Center for Family Healing in Menasha, Wis., lost both her parents in 2008. Her father, former AG minister Daniel Spina, died following a long battle with cancer. A few months later, her mother, Beth, died unexpectedly.

“Even when we’re prepared for the death of a loved one, it can take years to work through the grieving process,” Spina says.

Spina knows from experience that grieving is a necessary part of healing. In 1977, while Spina was a student at Central Bible College in Springfield, Mo., her 16-year-old brother died of leukemia.

Spina says she repressed her feelings over the loss because she feared her anger and doubts would be perceived as a lack of faith.

“I went into performance mode,” she says. “I believed God still healed, but I no longer believed it was for me. People would say, ‘You’re so strong.’ When I hit the lows, I didn’t tell anyone. I didn’t say to anybody, ‘I really miss my brother.’ I felt like I had to maintain this image, while inside I was angry. Anger is something the church doesn’t necessarily understand. It doesn’t seem very Christian. Yet it can be a natural part of the process of grieving.”

Spina says only a few years ago, while confined to bed with a back injury, did she confront the grief over her brother’s death and finally release it to God.

“I had bought into the idea that my performance for God was what He wanted,” Spina says. “He showed me that He just wanted me to spend time with Him and be honest with Him. Once I was able to tell God about my feelings, my relationship with Him became much more real.”

While death can be an uncomfortable topic, it’s a reality that’s difficult to avoid. Nearly 2.5 million people die in the United States annually, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. That figure will likely surge as the population grows older. In 2011, the first baby boomers — the generation born between 1946 and 1964 — will turn 65.

“Our new evangelism field is the elderly,” says Arlene Allen, director of the National Women’s Department for the Assemblies of God. “As people get older, they’re more open to thinking about where they’re going to spend eternity.”

Along with ministry to seniors, Allen says there is a need for outreach to those affected by the chronic illnesses and deaths of loved ones.

“Churches need to identify the needs in their congregations and communities and get busy meeting them,” Allen says. “I hope in another decade or so we are offering more resources for ministry to the dying and grieving.”

Allen and her husband, Gary, director of Pastor Care for the Assemblies of God, have developed ministry materials for widows as well as Alzheimer’s patients and their caregivers. The idea arose after Gary’s father died in 2007 of Alzheimer’s disease.

“The stress of being the sandwich generation is amazing,” says Allen, who now helps care for her ailing 84-year-old mother. “Dealing with frail parents and still trying to help your children and work full time can be overwhelming. There is a constant feeling of guilt that you aren’t doing enough.”

Alzheimer’s disease is the seventh leading cause of death in the United States, accounting for more than 72,000 deaths annually, according to the CDC. As the boomers enter their retirement years, the Alzheimer’s Association predicts 10 million will eventually develop the mind-wasting disease.

Joyce Carlisle, who leads church services in nursing homes and ministers in an Alzheimer’s unit, says watching a family member descend into the fog of Alzheimer’s disease is like grieving a series of deaths.

“My heart breaks for the families because they’ve lost their loved one — yet in the physical, the person is still here,” says Carlisle, Senior Ministries coordinator for the AG North Carolina District. “A number of family members visit while we’re there, never knowing what the response of the afflicted one will be that particular morning.”

Art Maddock, an AG hospice chaplain in Hutchinson, Kan., ministers to people of all ages in various stages of illness and grief. He prays with the dying, visits bereaved family members and leads grief support groups.

“The hardest part of my ministry is seeing the anguish and sorrow of family and friends whose loved one has died and who understand their lives will never be the same,” Maddock says. “The most rewarding aspect is being a consoling and healing presence to these same people.”

Maddock understands the pain of loss, having experienced the death of his 19-month-old daughter, Sarah, to cancer in 1997. Through this loss, he learned firsthand the importance of carrying one another’s burdens.

“Often we, as Christians, want to fix things, including people,” Maddock says. “Thus, we try, through clichés and other words, to make things better. Although these words are often expressed with the best of intentions, there are some things that are unfixable. The best thing we can do is simply be there — to listen without clichés, advice or judgment — to be the presence of Christ.”

Spina says it takes an intentional effort to minister to the needs of the bereaved in the weeks and months following the death of a loved one.

“The pain doesn’t end after the funeral,” Spina says. “After the family goes home and the activity dies down, the reality of the loss begins to sink in. You move out of the shock and denial phase and realize how profound the loss is as you face each day without that person.”

Christians can help, Spina says, by reminding the grieving that they’re not alone, simply by sending a card, typing an e-mail or making a phone call.

Spina says even though Christians have the hope of a resurrection, grief is still a normal human response to death. Even Jesus wept at the tomb of Lazarus, just before raising him from the dead.

“God is deeply touched in the presence of grief,” Spina says. “When we are in pain, there is a merciful God who is moved by our pain.”

CHRISTINA QUICK is a freelance writer and former Pentecostal Evangel staff writer. She lives in Springfield, Mo., and attends Central Assembly of God.

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