As word spread of Hardy Clemons’ death on July 1, there was a common refrain: he was “pastor to me.”

That identification came from beyond those in congregations Hardy served, which included First Baptist Church of Georgetown, Texas; Second Baptist Church in his hometown of Lubbock, Texas; and First Baptist Church of Greenville, South Carolina, where he was deemed pastor emeritus.

In 2012, I invited Hardy to join me during a Nurturing Faith board of directors’ meeting in San Antonio for a conversation about grief.

He had written and revised a book on the subject, spoke and taught frequently about grief and spent his pastoral career at the side of those who grieved.

But this was different. It was a few months after the death of his beloved wife of 57 years, Ardelle.

“It’s much easier to advise other people on how to deal with their grief than it is to deal with your own,” he confessed.

So, Hardy brought raw personal experience along with his professional expertise stirred by pastoral care pioneer Wayne Oates, who taught him “to take grief and grief study seriously.”

The setting for our conversation was a simple hotel conference room near the Riverwalk, but it became holy space and time.

Hardy, in his remarkable yet natural pastoral way, opened his heart, mind and life before us.

There was no pretense, no simple solutions. But loads of mercy and realistic hope.

Pastors and others charged with grief ministry often fail to recognize and address their own needs to grieve, Hardy noted, confessing he fell into that trap as a young minister.

“I thought I was supposed to be the strong one,” he said. “So, I let the grief stack up, then when the dam broke it really, really broke.”

A pastor needs a pastor, Hardy said, “a designated counselor, supervisor, mentor or whatever you want to call that person.” Just call on them.

In his own current grief, Hardy said people stopped talking about Ardelle before he was ready. And he found it hard to answer the common question, “How are you doing?”

“I wish somebody would invent a thermometer that would give you an emotional, spiritual reading on how you are doing,” Hardy said in his familiar drawl. “I’m pretty good at reading that in other people, but I’m not worth a flip at reading it in myself.”

Although he knew dreams accompanied grief, Hardy said he was surprised by how important such dramatic dreams and visions were to the healing process.

Due to digestive problems, Ardelle could not enjoy certain foods for the last five or six years of her life. Those included chocolate, coffee and chips.

“I know I wasn’t asleep when I had the neatest picture of Ardelle – about a week after her death – sitting at this kitchen table with Formica on top,” he recalled. “And here was a big bowl of chips and a big bowl of chocolate and a big urn of coffee.”

Hardy smiled and added, “And I thought: ‘She’s going to get to the spiritual stuff later.’”

That snapshot as well as “some really elaborate dreams,” he said, aided his grief journey.

Hardy identified two major challenges he and others face following the loss of a life partner or another very significant person.

“One is to make sure I am honest with myself about my need to do the valid grief work,” he said. “I’m trying to do that.”

“The other is to figure out what I’m going to do with the rest of my life without Ardelle in it,” he added. “I think I’m doing better with the first one than the second one.”

Hardy spoke of the importance of being in a caring community.

During Ardelle’s extended struggle with Alzheimer’s, more than 60 persons – organized by the women deacons at San Antonio’s Trinity Baptist Church – provided scheduled, faithful care.

This group of women and men became known as “Ardelle’s Angels” and carried on such caring for others in need. Being a part of a compassionate community is vital to the grief journey, he said.

“Every place I have ever been pastor has been a caring church,” Hardy said. “I am grateful for that.”

Now Hardy’s care-full life remains impactful through the many who benefited from his pastoral touch.

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