Andrew Saunderson is a Registered Social Worker who has worked in both acute care and community health settings, specifically in oncology, cardiology, HIV/AIDS and addictions. He has focused much of his 12 years of professional practice supporting individuals and families in the areas of grief and loss, trauma, wellbeing and meaningful living, joy and hope. He currently lives with his young family in Vancouver, British Columbia and has served in a variety of leadership positions both within the church and also community organizations.
While the start of a new year is certainly a time for hope and celebration, it is also a time of grief and loss for many. Collectively and individually, we are all grieving a myriad of losses related to the current global pandemic. Grief is the natural and normal emotional response to loss. Not simply the loss of friends and family who have died, but also the loss of control and certainty, connection and gathering, and the daily activities that we so easily take for granted.
He Has Borne Our Sorrows
As a leader, supporting individuals and families under our stewardship, as well as the leaders who serve beside us, can be especially challenging in the midst of so much change and loss. I love and appreciate the words of Isaiah, in chapter 53, when he shares that Christ is “a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief.” How comforting, especially in the midst of our own grief, to know that Christ was also acquainted with grief and sorrow. However, greater than simply empathy, Isaiah adds that, “surely He hath borne our griefs, and carried our sorrows.” Christ bore our griefs and carried our sorrows, not to take them away, but so that we don’t have to bear and carry them alone. I was reminded of Isaiah’s words soon after my unexpected divorce and while grappling with a myriad of losses, and feeling the many large emotions that accompany grief. Christ’s acquaintance with and bearing of my personal grief and sorrow was the solace that supported my healing.
As leaders striving to serve as our Savior, we can respond to grief and loss as He did, as evident in the words of Isaiah (Isaiah 53:3-5), his ministering to Mary and Martha after Lazarus had died (John 11:32-36), and as echoed in our baptismal covenant (Mosiah 18:8-9).
The following six suggestions may support you as you support others on their grief journeys:
1. Acknowledge the Loss – Name It as Grief
Naming the emotion and lived experience as grief is both validating and empowering, especially in a world where both major and minor losses are not always acknowledged as grief. Often the most meaningful support someone can receive on their grief journey is a witness to their loss.
2. Empathize Through Validating, Normalizing, and Empathetic Language
It is incredibly powerful to receive reassurance that it is normal to experience sadness, numbness, anger, and other emotions associated with the grief. And using empathetic language that is non-judgmental and focused on them rather than sympathetic language that is often focused on self is most helpful. For example:
- Sympathy = I feel for you;
- Empathy = I feel with you.
3. Find Ways to Lighten Their Load
When/if needed, temporary relief from some responsibilities may enhance and improve their healing process. Allowing them, for a season, to focus a little more on their own emotions leaves space for this process. Ensuring that they are aware that this is an option and that it is not a reflection of their leadership or abilities, but rather a reflection of their humanity, can be especially supportive. However, it’s important to involve them in the discussion of temporarily reducing responsibilities.
4. Understand That Serving May Be a Valuable Coping Strategy for Their Grief
For some, thinking less of self and more of others is a coping strategy that supports their grief journey. As a result, ensuring that they continue to have opportunities to serve and be involved may be what is best as they grieve.
5. Don’t Rush the Grief Journey/Healing
Timelines for grief are unique and individual and often take longer than we hope or expect. For most people, we never actually “get over” the grief, instead over time we become better at using healthy coping strategies in response to the grief triggers that arise. Leaving the time and space to heal is one of the most valuable gifts you can offer to yourself or others as they grieve.
6. Don’t Ask – Just Serve
Compassion, simply defined, is empathy in action. Just as the Savior never stopped to ask permission to serve someone who was feeling hurt or broken, we too should strive to question less and act more. Accompaniment on an unexpected grief journey is like balm of Gilead.
Grief can Linger
Like a pandemic, grief often lingers far longer than we ever expected and so focusing on coping strategies instead of “getting over it” is essential. Meeting people where they are at in their grief journey, and then moving at their pace is one of the greatest blessings you can offer them as a leader. There is no benefit to rushing our collective or individual healing.
Similar to how the Savior led, while responding to grief and loss, we too can do more than just provide empathy, as we can truly seek to bear the grief of those we serve and carry their sorrows wherever possible.