Offering Our Presence

Serving among the Grieving (from Issue #537)

GreivingTHIS PAST SUMMER one of our Bible camp cabin leaders learned that every boy in his cabin, except one, had lost his father in recent months.

Recently one of our missionaries visited a northern village where there had been two suicides, a week apart.

One of our workers counted 13 funerals in one month on a Reserve of a couple thousand.
In one small northern community (pop. about 125) there were six deaths within a few months.

One missionary tells of a one-year period when, in their small First Nations fellowship, four mothers lost a child.

Of all these deaths, some were the result of illness and old age, but many were unnatural – drownings, freezing, fires, vehicle accidents, suicides, murders.

Many of these who passed away were closely related to folks who our missionaries have come to know and love. One of our workers remembers very clearly the morning police called looking for the young First Nations man who had lived with their family for some time. After years of searching, the body of his sister had been found.

Another missionary tells of First Nations friends she sees regularly: one had just lost a brother to cancer, another’s seven year-old grandniece accidentally strangled, another’s daughter attempted suicide, another friend’s nephew’s body was found mutilated in a farmer’s field … all this within a 10-day span! The same missionary had just visited a family who had lost their dad to an unnatural death. The children asked if she would take care of them if their mom also died.

Why mention all these? A couple decades ago Arthur Holmes (Ojibway) wrote The Grieving Indian. In it he estimated 20% of non-Aboriginals die unexpected deaths while 80% of Aboriginals do so. If this is even remotely accurate, it means our missionaries are serving surrounded by grieving people.

Response to Grief

Individuals may handle death and grief differently, but here are some ways we see many of our First Nations friends responding.

We’re always impressed as we see, following a death, First Nations people gathering together to comfort one another. They will spend many hours gathered in homes and halls in the days prior to the funeral. Wake services may include many hours of songs, visiting, and talks to the group. Relatives and friends will pitch in, donating food and money.

Relatives and neighbors will drop whatever they are doing, work or school, travel large distances if necessary, to be together. One of our missionaries tells of a family who all slept on mattresses in their living room for a period of time – their way of comforting one another.

Our missionaries have observed young people openly grieving. In one community the youth put up a large sign in memory of a friend who had died. They posted photos on Facebook expressing their sadness, and while at Bible camp created tributes with art.

We know of an ex-prisoner group who makes blankets for grieving mothers, even a blanket given to console the mother of a convicted murderer.

However, Canada’s First Peoples are diverse, and there is not always open support shown. In some communities they are quick to clean the possessions out of the deceased person’s house, to be burned or thrown away. This practice isn’t appreciated by everyone – some would like keepsakes. The house may be left empty for years for fear of the deceased person’s spirit coming back to haunt.

Sometimes, after the burial, the deceased person’s name is not spoken again (they may say, “our son, cousin,” etc.). While some communities will talk often of the deceased, others will say very little, even though deeply affected.

Our missionaries have observed funerals without much comfort offered by clergy. In mainline churches the deceased person’s baptism as a baby is often pronounced as their only surety of heaven.

What a tremendous difference when the departed one knew Christ! Christian families hold wake services full of worship. Family members talk openly about their deep grief, but also about how Christ is carrying them.

Unresolved Grief

In The Grieving Indian Arthur Holmes tells his own story – how he would do well for long periods of time, but would always go back to drinking. He had all the support a person could need – a loving family and church, education and a job. He was frustrated and confused by his constant return to alcohol abuse.

Then someone told him about the “Five Phases of Grief”: Denial, Anger, Bargaining, Depression and Acceptance. He realized that he was stuck in the Anger phase. It was not until he dealt with his unresolved grief that he was able to end his bouts of drinking.

Holmes believes that many First Nations’ addictions are due to unresolved grief. It is normal to grieve the loss of a close loved one for about two years, he says. However, people who use drugs, alcohol, gambling or illicit sex to hide from pain, don’t deal with their grief until they overcome their addictions. But their addictions prevent them from dealing with grief. The result is a self-feeding cycle of entrapment. In the meantime, there are likely more losses to grieve.

Yet, along with Mr. Holmes, in NCEM we believe that through Christ there is freedom from vices, and comfort for the sorrowing!

Ministry to the Grieving

So how do our missionaries minister to grieving people? What can we say to these in deep emotional pain?

Actually, our missionaries have found that right after the passing of a loved one, what we “say” isn’t the most important thing. It’s offering our presence, and looking for practical ways to help.

As missionary Gilbert Bekkatla ministers to his own Dene people, even when he doesn’t know the family well, he believes it’s important to be there. It’s something he says he observed missionaries doing when he was a young man.

“When there are gatherings following a death, I don’t go to ‘preach,’ ” he says. “I sit with them. If there is a time of sharing, I always ask the family for permission first before I speak. They always say, ‘Yes.’ I tell them about how my wife, Laura, and I lost our own son, and how God comforted us.”

Gilbert says that years later those families remember the time he spent with them when they were grieving. “Opportunities to share the Gospel will come.”

Sometimes there are opportunities to share Scripture, even when we don’t know the family. One missionary couple tells of being called to the home of a woman who had accidently run over and killed her own nephew. “She was inconsolable. We were feeling quite helpless to know what to say. But we simply opened the Word of God and started reading. The change was miraculous. We could feel the tension lift and a peace came upon her that was obviously from God.”

“The best thing is just to be there,” adds another NCEMer, “to let them talk, to let them know you care. We’ve found that people appreciate hearing God’s Word, too. One of our friends told us later that the Scripture reading was very helpful.”

Of course ministry to grieving people is ongoing. One of our workers says that months and years later she will purposely mention a deceased loved one when visiting together.

Depending on God
Carolyn Jespersen

Carolyn Jespersen

Our missionaries admit that constantly ministering to grieving people can affect our own emotions, and can prompt depression. We are affected by it more than we think, says one, but not so likely to recognize it and seek help.

Our missionaries also have experienced their own losses. Carolyn Jespersen shares, “I have learned a lot about the whole grieving process through personal grief – the sudden tragic death of our son, and my husband Joe’s death to cancer in 2012. And I have shared with many First Nations friends who have lost loved ones.

“I’ve learned that there are things not to say,” says Carolyn. “I don’t say, ‘I know how you feel.’ Grief is a very personal thing and every individual grieves differently. I don’t say, ‘Jesus needed them,’ especially to a child. That may turn them against Jesus. “I don’t quote verses like Romans 8:28 (“all things work together…”). It’s true, but not appropriate timing.

“Give advice, if you are asked,” Carolyn suggests. “Be there for the person. Bring things like food to the family – usually there are extra mouths to feed. Make offers of accommodations for family coming from out of town.

“I am involved in a grief support group for recent widows. I encourage grieving individuals to get into some kind of support group. There is a lot of good literature and web sites that talk about the grieving process, even devotionals to help in those early days. The Grieving Indian book is a very good resource.

“My caution is to be sensitive in sharing the Gospel,” she advises. “Seek the guidance of the Holy Spirit to share in a manner that draws them to Christ rather than turns them away.

“I have learned to depend on God for emotional and spiritual strength and courage in dealing with my own grief, and others’ grief. It’s not only important to be there for people at the immediate time of death, but also in the year or two after. I found my First Nations friends were – and are – there for me.”

The Grieving Indian book (& workbook) are available from our NCEM Bookstore. Call 306-764-4490.

(from Northern Lights issue #537)