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Life after death

19 October 2018

Churches are helping the bereaved by offering support groups and services, Jemima Thackray discovers


Bereavement ministry seeks to support people in their grief after the funeral has taken place

Bereavement ministry seeks to support people in their grief after the funeral has taken place

CHURCH of England clergy are involved with about 2800 funerals a week, on average. But the work of pioneering parish churches in supporting people who are grieving in their community is increasingly extending far beyond the funeral service: many churches now develop their bereavement ministries to include running remembering services, support groups, befriending schemes, and even structured bereavement courses.

The Head of Life Events for the Archbishops’ Council, Canon Sandra Millar, says that increased activity in churches is in line with recent cultural changes, and is a response to a growing area of need.

“Talking about death and bereavement is no longer such a taboo. The Baby Boom generation are now facing their own death, and their children face the death of parents, and their grandchildren may encounter grief for the first time. Society is recognising that the loss of someone we care about, whether family or friend, has a big impact on our mental health and well-being. The need for good pastoral care, and for friends, neighbours, and communities who will be alongside, has never been greater.”

The growth of remembering services is one way in which some churches are responding. The Team Rector at St Mary and All Saints, Beaconsfield, the Revd Jeremy Brooks, who has written several books about the funeral ministry of the Church of England and is part of the Archbishops’ Council Working Group on Life Events, believes that remembering services are “something really distinctive” that churches can offer.

“Certainly, doing an annual remembrance service is a really good start. These are traditionally around All Souls’ Day, but it’s worth asking the question: Is this the right time? Our church does it in January, because it enables us to send everyone who has been bereaved an invitation with a Christmas card. It’s hugely well attended, and for those who come it makes such a difference.”

St Mary’s, Teddington, in London, schedules its “remembering” service just before Christmas, to include “people for whom all the jollity of Christmas is just too much, for those who find the time of year difficult, for those for whom there’s an empty place at the table”, the Associate Minister, the Revd Mary Hawes, says. “It grew out of the ‘Blue Christmas’ idea that some churches do, but we felt we wanted to drop the Elvis associations. So we call it the ‘Longest Night’ service, and hold it on or very near to 21 December.

“Everyone is given a votive candle at the door. We then tell the story of Christmas with readings, poems, and prayers which recognise the pain that people carry. During the service we invite people, if they want to, to place their candle at the crib, and then light it as a sign of hope.”

Mr Brooks believes that church services are unique in the space that they give people to mourn and pray. To that end, he encourages people with a Christian faith to consider having a small vigil eucharist the night before a funeral.

“It’s often impractical to have a eucharist at the funeral, but, for a small group of people who share in the faith of the deceased, it can be very powerful. Most families have not heard of it, when I suggest it, but all uniformly remark on what a difference it makes to them.

“Most recently, we held a vigil for Bishop Peter Nott. We placed Peter’s Bible on the coffin, alongside symbols of his office — such as his crook and pectoral cross — and the service had a huge power for everyone present; and, for the family, it was an opportunity to be together in an intimate space before God.”

istockSome churches are running groups that offer tea and a chance to talk


AT ST BARTHOLOMEW’s, Blurton, in the diocese of Lichfield, there is a dedicated funeral ministry team that contacts bereaved families soon after the funeral, to ensure that they are receiving support, to direct them to specialist services if required, and also to invite the family to the church’s monthly memorial service.

“We wrote a special liturgy to make it more accessible for bereaved families who have little experience of church,” the Assistant Curate of St Bartholomew’s, the Revd Merry Smith, says. “And we select from a small number of hymns that they will definitely know, so that they can feel part of a community.”

The Revd Paul Doick, who has just won the title “Funeral Minister of the Year 2018” at the Good Funeral Awards, believes that excellent bereavement care must include this kind of intentional follow-up. Despite officiating at between 25 and 40 funerals a year, he is purposeful about keeping in touch with as many of the families as possible, using the new “pastoral diary” tool on the C of E’s Church Support Hub to set reminders for every anniversary of death.

“As clergy, we always feel endlessly guilty about what we’re not doing: there’s always more we could do, and we can’t remember everything. I forget, too. But the thing we mustn’t do is cross the road. Whenever I see anyone I know has been bereaved, even years after, I always ask ‘How are you doing?’”

His church, St Peter’s, Henfield, in Chichester diocese, also runs a weekly bereavement-support group, which is entirely lay-led. “People often think that a vicar will have all the answers. And I also tend not to get involved with the group, in case people worry there are certain things they can’t say, especially if they are angry with God.”

At Christ Church, West Wimbledon, the lay community have been so proactive that they have developed a volunteer bereavement-support service from scratch. “We were consistently supporting the bereaved within our own congregation, and we thought: why can’t we offer this support out to the community, too?” one of the founders, Chris Larkman, says. Two years later, the service has a staff of ten trained volunteers and receives weekly referrals from GPs in the parish.

A personal letter is sent to every bereaved family a fortnight after the funeral at St Mary’s, Porchester, inviting them to the church’s bereavement-support group, Tea and Company. “There are pastoral assistants there to come alongside people in their grief. For many, it’s also a way of overcoming the loneliness of bereavement,” the Priest-in-Charge, the Revd Ian Meredith, says.

“As a church, we’ve been very committed to supporting the bereaved. . . If I look down the electoral roll, there are a large number of people who have reconnected with faith through this ministry, and now come to church — far more than as a result of weddings or funerals.”

The church also runs an eight-week course, “Living with Grief”: each session is structured around a ten-minute video, which prompts discussion about different aspects of the grieving process. It took time and research to find an appropriate resource, Mr Meredith says. “We had to do some digging to find decent material. Eventually, we found an online course provided by an American publisher — although, even then, we’ve had to tailor it to make it suitable.”

This shortage of Christian bereavement resources does not surprise the Revd Yvonne Tulloch, the founder of At a Loss, a charity founded in 2017 to provide a directory of national and local bereavement services (www.ataloss.org). A former Canon for Mission at Coventry Cathedral, Mrs Tulloch lost her husband suddenly and unexpectedly, and was “shocked and appalled” by the “total lack of formalised support, or signposting in the Church”.

Fr Paul Doick, after he received his Funeral Minister of the Year award, at this year’s Good Funeral Awards ceremony

“I felt completely lost and isolated, and then I stumbled across the Care for the Family ‘Widowed Young’ course, which was literally a lifeline. It is one of only two bereavement courses in the Church.” The other is The Bereavement Journey course, at Holy Trinity, Brompton, in London, which next month Mrs Tulloch will start running (the course is available as a series of free YouTube videos at www.htb.org/thebereavementjourney).


She is keen to enable more churches to access the material: “We want to say to churches: ‘Look, here is an easy resource you can use. Drop-ins and support groups may be a bridge too far; but, with this course, you can simply play the DVDs and provide the tea. Bereavement doesn’t necessarily need to be facilitated by a specialist, unless it is a complex case when a counsellor is needed, but it does need to be made space for. And people will come. There is a vast need, because of so many years of people not being able to address their loss.

“Unfortunately, we live in a death-denying society. For years, we’ve been kidding ourselves that people don’t die; so people end up suppressing their grief and grieving unhealthily. And, if anything, it’s worse in the Church. There is so much emphasis these days on prayer for healing that it leads to people saying deeply unhelpful things.

“Combined with the expectation that Christians should always be happy, because we believe in heaven, one ends up feeling they are not allowed to grieve. We need to redress the balance from this ‘God will fix it’ theology: otherwise all we’re doing is colluding with society’s death-denial, that we can pay (or pray) our way out of death.”


CHURCH initiatives such as GraveTalk (developed out of conversations with the secular movement Death Café) — which uses a pack of 50 open-ended questions, in an informal café setting, to get people talking about death (Features, 5 May 2017) — are not designed to be bereavement support, but they are part of the national Church’s drive to have better, more natural conversations about mortality.

Canon Joanna Collicutt is a chartered psychologist and consultant clinical neuro­psycho­logist, who lectures in the psychology of religion and spiritual­ity, and is the Oxford diocesan adviser for spiritual care of older people. She is seeking to progress the Church’s thinking on the subject even further, and has just finished writing a death preparation course, Death and Life: Christian resources for living well in the light of mortality (www.deathlife.org.uk), which will soon be launched in the diocese of Oxford. It covers many practical areas, such as will-writing and funeral-planning, and its final session links directly to the grieving process, inviting participants to consider their beliefs about resurrection.

“Grief is a process of placing a person somewhere; this can start with difficult conversations around what to do with the ashes,” Canon Collicutt says. “But then it becomes about where you place them in your head: do you think of your loved one as being with you, or absent from you?

“In all the research we’ve done to prepare the course, we found that a lot of people, even those who are regular churchgoers, have never talked about this, and want to talk about it. These are the conversations we need to be having. For too long, the Church has been catching up with secular initiatives about death. But we should be being innovative on this, because we have something totally different to say, which is that death is not the end.” 


‘Our job is to be alongside’

Parishoners of Christ Church, West Wimbledon, have set up a bereavement-support service that now receives referrals from local GPs. Chris Larkman is one of the volunteers

Some of the volunteers from Christ Church, West Wimbledon, who run a community bereavement service

AS A local church, we were thinking about how we could improve our outreach. We knew that the Primary Care Trust (PCT) had withdrawn funding for the Sutton and Merton Bereavement Service, resulting in its closure; so there was a lack of adequate support for people going through bereavement. We managed to recruit ten excellent volunteers from our parish community. We sought advice and training from professionals, and we also have a trained counsellor who supervises all our week on a completely voluntary basis.

We are clear that we ourselves are not “counsellors”. Our job is to listen and be alongside people, and receive their grief. As time’s gone on, we’re discovering how much we’re being given: people’s trust and openness to us is incredible. We see tangibly that people are being supported, and many seem so relieved to have someone separate from friends and family to talk to.

Some people come just once, some half a dozen times or more, depending on the individual need. Some people come and see us several months, even years, after a death. They often say that they were fine at the time, keeping busy with the practical tasks of the funeral and the probate, but then they find that they are suddenly not coping.

We’ve seen a shocking number of suicides, and some stillbirths and cot deaths. These are difficult cases. Sometimes, we come away from meetings in tears ourselves, but our supervision sessions provide space to talk through the work that we’ve been doing. We also interview and vet our volunteer counsellors to make sure that everyone has the right skills, as well as putting on regular training days.

Most of our referrals are from GP practices, because, of course, GPs have only ten minutes to see patients; so it will be towards the end of an appointment — when the person is still talking and clearly needs to talk more — that the GP will give them one of our cards. At the bottom of our cards, it says: “Sponsored by Christ Church, West Wimbledon”, as a way of identifying ourselves without coming over as “too churchy”. That said, if someone professes a faith and their faith is part of their healing process, we would support them to make use of their belief system.

Our project is simple. There is very little bureaucracy involved. We meet people, listen to them, and, when appropriate, try to offer reassurance. But it is effective, and the feedback we receive from the GPs and other referrers — and, most importantly, from the people themselves — has been very positive.

Some people have been pushing us to expand, but we want to stay as we are; things become more complicated when you start getting large amounts of funding. But we would be really keen to assist and support other churches who want to do something similar.

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