I sat in the congregation for a friend’s funeral and felt the weight of grief. I most certainly felt grief related to the loss of my friend, yet there was more.
In the pew, I experienced cascading mental images of funerals past: Lloyd, Collette, Nathan, Marjorie, Sarah, Miss Bessie, Alice, John, Jill, Martha.
It was a weighty load. I was glad I was sitting.
Ministers have a unique and uneasy relationship with grief. When a church member dies, we drop what we are doing and hustle to a bedside, hospital room, hospice facility, home or roadside.
We go into “automatic mode” focused on facilitating the grief of others. We hold hands. We say prayers. We organize funeral services. We speak on behalf of grieving family members.
All the while, we postpone our own grief.
Frankly, this is a conscious choice for most ministers. We know we hurt but we “minister up” for the benefit of family and congregation. We lead by setting aside our own emotions and grief for another day.
I am not sure there is any other way to do it. A minister’s first responsibility is to her or his role as a minister and this necessitates moving into “organize and fix-it mode” when we would rather throw up our hands, walk away and have a good cry.
So, we deliberately say to ourselves, “I have got to help this family and my congregation through this tough spot. I will do my grieving another day.”
And many of us do just that; we find a time later in the week to revisit the loss and process thoughts and feelings, but are never quite able to retouch the raw depth of feeling that was originally evident in us.
And so, some residue of grief from previous funerals is somehow left in the deep part of a minister’s heart.
For me, images flash in and out of my mind in isolated settings (funerals mostly): an infant’s coffin, a weeping widow, a child’s tears when I told him his father died, a mother holding her dead baby, kneeling in a busy intersection to identify a body.
While some may wonder about my grasp on sanity, I think this is fairly normal and natural for ministers. When one embraces the most sacred places of life, one is never the same.
I am not “fixing” anything here. I am naming and owning a reality. Ministers share a unique and uneasy relationship with grief.
RonCrawford is president of the Baptist Theological Seminary at Richmond. This column first appeared on his blog.