In the late 1960s, Dr. Elisabeth Kubler-Ross theorized that the grieving process moved through five distinct stages, one after the next. Although the exact order may vary by individual, this school of thought believes that grief is a fairly orderly and predictable process. Thinking about your congregation's hardships in this way may help you when offering comfort and advice during their time of need.
In the K├?┬╝bler-Ross model, denial is the first sequential stage of the grieving process, and acts as a buffer or cushion for the shock of grief. The denial stage is characterized by:
- avoiding talk about the event that caused (or will cause) grieving
- talking only about the future
- misplaced blame, often to authority figures, including God
- a refusal to return phone calls or correspondence from friends and family
During this part of the ordeal, try your best to be nonjudgmental and to be a good listener. Although what the person says may be irrational, allow them to work through their own thoughts and feelings.
Anger is the second part of dealing with grief. When dealing with a grieving person in this stage, try to remember that their anger is with the situation, and not with you. The anger stage is often recognized by:
- thoughts of self-pity, asking, "Why me?"
- questioning of basic beliefs about God and Jesus Christ
- accusing family and friends of being uncaring
Be aware that anger can sometimes spread to surrounding family members and friends, and to you, as well. Try not become alienated, and take a break from counseling if need be. Do your best to place yourself in their shoes -- imagining what they're going through is your best way of understanding their anger and helping them to work through it.
The next stage of the grieving process is known as bargaining. It often involves people making promises to God, agreeing to change their life if only their loved one or they themselves are spared from death. They may also ask for an opportunity to do something special before the event of grief comes to pass. During this stage, resist the temptation to brush statements like this aside as wild or foolish -- often, they are completely sincere and heartfelt, if ultimately misguided. Talk these promises out in hopes of finding their motivations.
The depression stage of grief is characterized by feelings of sadness and despair, and may last for an extended period of time. It often comes with the realization that the death or loss is inevitable. Depression of this kind is typified by bodily weakness, an inability to perform simple tasks, and questioning life's significance. It is often common for people near death to think that their lives have been in vain.
A common first counseling reaction to depression is to try to cheer the person, telling them to "look on the bright side" and "buck up," pointing out the ways in which they're living good lives. While this may work for people who have lost their jobs or suffered financial difficulties, those grieving for their own lives or lost loved ones may find more comfort in expressing themselves.
Try to be the best listener you can for such people. It's okay not to talk much. Often, the best thing you can do for someone in the depression stage is to simply "be there" as much as possible. If they are receptive to conversation, tell them all they ways in which they've been a good person, and encourage others who come to see them to do the same.
The final part of the grieving process, acceptance, is often seen as a time of resolution for those close to the dying. It is usually accompanied by physical weakness. For the person dying, it often involves a concentration on the inner self and a detachment from worldly concerns, desires, and loved ones. He or she will often communicate less with those around them. This time is often stressful for the family members, who may want to "clear the air" with the dying, and become frustrated when he or she wants to be left alone, feeling rejected.
Generally, it is best to respect the dying's wishes during this time. If they prefer, do you best to limit visitors. Also, offer non-verbal signs of affection -- brighten their room with flowers, hold their hand, and reassure them that it's all right not to speak. You are there with them to offer comfort, companionship, and peace, and your simple presence may be enough to do so.