This article from Loss & HOPE gives some helpful advice for lay ministers seeking to bring light and hope to the bereaved.
In July 2020, Coop Funeralcare released a media report entitled ‘A Nation in Mourning’, reflecting on the devastation of the Covid-19 pandemic following the first wave of infection.
It highlighted the shocking death toll, the personal tragedies of all those loved and lost, and the response of funeral industry professionals whose roles were radically changed almost overnight as restrictions on funerals came into force.
Along with all of that came the distressing forecast that the fall-out of the additional deaths in 2020 would result in a ‘grief pandemic’ to sweep the nation in the following months.
But of course, sadly, we now know that was to be only the beginning. As 2021 had barely begun, UK coronavirus-related deaths surpassed 100,000, a heartbreakingly high number of additional deaths to the usual 600,000 per annum.
Those of us engaged in funerals ministry will know how hard it has been supporting families while also having to restrict the number of mourners at funerals, knowing that those who were unable to attend were denied the opportunity to say a formal final goodbye to the person they loved.
An alarming number were unable to see or speak to them before they died. Many more were unable to share face-to-face chats and hugs at a wake, or visit and hug family and friends for the weeks and months afterwards. And receiving a pastoral visit from someone at the local church hasn’t been possible for large chunks of time.
The Revd Canon Yvonne Richmond Tulloch is the founder of AtaLoss.org, a charity which runs the UK’s bereavement signposting website. She says the pandemic restrictions have denied bereaved people the things that normally enable them to process their loss.
“Over the past 18 months many people will have put their grief on hold and for others the constant reminder of death will have opened up wounds of unprocessed grief from before. We’re now facing a ‘tsunami’ of grief,” explained Yvonne, adding that even before the pandemic, charities such as Cruse Bereavement Care had long waiting lists.
She continued: “With timely information and understanding support, most bereaved people can work through a journey that eventually brings them to a place of acceptance and peace. The AtaLoss.org website fulfils a vital, initial role in helping bereaved people to immediately find information and national services that are right for their needs.
“After that, they need to find lots of local, understanding care. That way, the more complex needs can be reserved for the specialists. In my experience, bereaved people welcome anyone who reaches out to help, even in the simplest of ways.”
Yvonne and senior colleagues working in funerals ministry in the Church of England say that churches are ideally placed to offer bereavement support because they’re located in every community and because we’re called, as Christians, to reach out to the hurting and needy. Funerals are also a part of most churches’ core ministry, so collectively, churches across the UK are coming into constant contact with many thousands of grieving families every week.
The Revd Canon Sandra Millar, the national Church of England’s Head of Welcome & Life Events, says that for many church leaders and those who are active in their church, reaching out with care to those who are grieving can be one of the most important expressions of their faith.
She said: “It might be as simple as sending a message, offering practical help, or taking time to listen. But often, we rely on the fact that those who want some support will actually ask for it, whereas now might be the moment when we need to be more proactive – for example by putting up a poster reminding the whole community that this is what we do. That’s why we’ve made posters available to churches to put up which invite people to ‘Just Ask’.”*
Recent research for the Church of England showed that fewer than half the population realise that they can access a church for funerals and bereavement support, yet nearly two thirds of them think that a church should and could be a place where they find help.
This might be through special services in times of remembering, but Sandra advises that personal contacts and relationships with people from within the church, along with appropriate spaces for expressing grief, (which might be indoor, outdoor, or online), matter just as much.
Reader Kate Bradshaw has also found a sad lack of knowledge about what the church can offer, and she believes part of the answer is building a good working relationship with local funeral directors.
She explained: “Funeral directors may not always recognise when a family would benefit from a faith-based funeral, and they also want celebrants who are available to them at short notice. Raising our profile with local funeral directors as professional, capable, caring and available funeral celebrants has never been so important.”
She believes churches will need to find ways to help people feel that the person who died has been properly acknowledged and taken into God’s care, even if they aren’t regular churchgoers. Following up with people after a funeral, regardless of where it took place, and checking in with a friendly ‘how are you’ phone call, is a simple way for those deeper conversations to start.
Yvonne agrees. She passionately believes bereavement care is important to implement as part of all that a church can offer. Yvonne’s faith in this led to the creation of a coalition of Christian organisations called Loss & HOPE (www.lossandhope.org), launched in 2020 specifically to equip churches with information, advice and training to support those who are bereaved and to share ideas.
Yvonne points out that churches can adapt the level of support they offer according to their resources and time. Sharing the AtaLoss.org website at funerals, on parish websites and other communications is a basic way of supporting bereaved families and takes little time and effort.
For ministers wanting to offer longer term support and to help them build lasting relationships with people in their parish, the Loss & HOPE team are encouraging churches to run The Bereavement Journey, a self-help series of films and discussion groups for anyone bereaved with all the resources and training needed to make it easy to run online or in person. This is encouraged to provide a UK wide church response to the pandemic and includes an optional session on faith which, along with wider church support, can open the door to continued engagement with church.
For anyone wanting more information, advice or training in offering bereavement support, the following websites will help.
• www.ataloss.org – the UK’s central hub of services and information offering immediate help to the bereaved and directing to appropriate national and local support. Posters and contact cards can be ordered, as well as journals for supporting young people through loss and ‘Remembering Someone’ grieving badges as gifts.
• www.thebereavementjourney.org – a 6 session self-help series of films and discussion for people bereaved in any circumstance, available to be run face-to-face or online.
• www.churchsupporthub.org/funerals – to help churches with all aspects of funerals ministry. Several free downloads are available to help people who are unable to attend a funeral.
• www.churchprinthub.org/funerals – free and paid-for resources to help churches support bereaved families on the day of the funeral and long afterwards. * The ‘Just Ask’ posters mentioned above can be found on this site.
• www.churchofengland.org/funerals – refer families and funeral directors to these pages to help them understand what churches offer around the time of a funeral and beyond.
A longer version of this article can be found in the Summer 2021 issue of Transforming Ministry magazine. Subscribers can access back issues of all magazines published since the beginning of 2016.