Grieving full time while in ministry full time: a lifestyle that has aged me, broken me, and grown my faith in Jesus. For the past eight months, this has been my new norm. Grieving. Hiring a Children’s Ministry team. Grieving. Launching brand-new ministries. Grieving. Renovating our toddler nursery. Grieving. Grieving.
This past February marked the beginning of an unwelcomed journey, one that has now become a part of a story. A story filled with sunset reminders of God’s goodness and middle-of-the-night heaving sobs from a hurting, broken heart. My dear brother, John Stathakis, the one I respected more than just about any person on this earth…he loved deeply, stressed never, reassured always, and was incredibly loyal. The one who called our mom and dad regularly, traveled home to see our parents as often as he could, left my brother and sister-in-law the sweetest voice message the night their little one was born, called and texted me regularly. And oh, was he ever loved. Tragically (as if that word can even begin to describe the heart-wrenching, earth shattering day that forever changed my family’s life), John died this past February. Seizures. I cringe when I hear that word. My brother is gone, and a part of me is gone, too.
My prayer in writing this is to share my story, yes. But even more, dear partner in the Gospel and friend in Christ, I write to remind you of the hope that we have in Jesus and to equip you to support a grieving member of your own staff.
Five Notes for a Grieving Heart
- Take each moment ten seconds by ten seconds
If you can do that, and I trust that you can, you’re doing great. Keep going. Holding my brother’s hand as he died, watching my parents walk down the aisle during their 25-year-old son’s funeral, standing by his graveside instead of on the steps at the chancel at his wedding… I did not know what to do but take things ten seconds by ten seconds. And so I did. God carried me through each moment.
- Let it all out
Go ahead and cry. And cry some more. If you need to cry at work, go ahead and cry. Call friends over to cry with you. Go to friends’ homes and let them sit with you as you cry. In our Lord’s compassion, He has “kept track of all your sorrows. He’s collected all of your tears in His bottle, and has recorded each one in His book” (Psalm 56:8). Every single tear is unique to your heavenly Father. As you cry, He will rejoice over you with His singing and quiet you with His love.
- See a Christian grief counselor
I sought a licensed professional with extensive grief counseling experience who did not work at my church. I wanted to let my pastors be my coworkers and friends. Their families invite me over, check up on me, and remind me that I’m going to be OK and my family will be OK. I pray that yours do, as well. I soak in their words and thank God for their faithfulness. But when it comes to counseling, I chose to go the route of talking to somebody not connected to my church or ministry.
- You are not a burden
One night when my chest hurt and my shoulders felt like weights were sitting on them, I googled “physical effects of grief.” I learned that the word ‘grief’ comes from the French word ‘greve,’ which literally means ‘a heavy burden.’ In Galatians 6:2, Paul calls believers to “Carry each other’s burdens, and in this way you will fulfill the law of Christ.” You are not a burden, dear friend. Your grief is a burden, and you are not meant to carry it alone. Our brothers and sisters in Christ carry us, pointing us to Christ who trades our burdens for His joy. His design is a beautiful one.
- Easter changes everything
Oh, absolutely everything. Your loved one is with Jesus, face to face. Let that soak in. Your loved one has died, which means a part of you has died, too. You will not ever be the same. But we have this hope: our Savior lives. Heaven is real. Our eternal life is secure. You are without your dear one now, but the most beautiful reunion, one beyond our imagination, is coming. JOY awaits you. Eternal joy. As tears stream down my face while I write these words from my heart to yours, my prayer is that these wash over you and cover you with God’s peace.
Dear partner in the Gospel, God has called you to your position for such a time as this. He’s equipped you with everything you need to love His people and to minister to them in their darkest hour. He goes before you and makes your paths straight, pointing you to the cross and to the empty tomb. As you read the following, be at peace. It is God Almighty who works through you.
Five Ways to Love a Grieving Person
- Show up
John spent three days and three nights in the hospital in Chicago near where he lived. Friends and family showed up and held our hands. They held John’s hand. His funeral was in Michigan, where he grew up. Friends and family showed up and held our hands. John is buried in Chicago, on the same plot as our grandparents and great grandparents. At his graveside service, friends and family took the day off work to show up and hold our hands.
I will always be so thankful for the cards, the texts, and a gentle voice on the other end when I call. My friends, as you seek to love a grieving person, you do not have to have fancy words, gourmet food, or pretty flowers. Just show up. God will do the rest; He has a way of doing that.
- Just because we’re not crying doesn’t mean we’re not grieving
Crying all day, every day is exhausting. It’s draining. It steals our joy and weighs us down. Though work has its ups and downs, it’s also an outlet. I get so caught up in the craziness of ministry that most days I don’t have time to think about how much I miss my brother. My heart is still hurting, though. I am so thankful for colleagues who, months after John died, acknowledge that I’m still grieving.
- Every heart needs you to point to Jesus
You have been called to minister to the people in your church body. Each precious heart on your staff also needs to be ministered to, especially the hurting ones. You do not need to be that person’s counselor (see note #3 above) but please do point them to the cross, to the empty tomb, and to God’s goodness and faithfulness. My pastors and colleagues know that my heart is still hurting.
- Just do it
Instead of saying, “let me know if you need anything,” how about, “We would love to have you for dinner tonight. See you at 6?” Instead of saying, “make sure you take time for yourself,” perhaps you could say, “Go home for the day–it’ll all be here tomorrow. Let me know what fun thing you decide to do this afternoon.” God continues to care for me through His people so that I can’t ever say “I’m here alone.” They don’t wait for me to tell them what I need. They stand by my side and tell me they’re not leaving.
- Don’t stop asking
Please don’t. Grief is ever-changing and never really ends. No matter how uncomfortable you may feel, please don’t stop asking about your staff member’s dear loved one. Though John is no longer here, he was for 25 years. The amount of life he lived in 25 years is equivalent to what some people would live in 100 years. I want to share the hilarious stories he lived, the wisdom he gave to me, and the lessons he taught me. Please, don’t stop asking.
Grief is real. It’s catastrophic. It’s an absolute nightmare and has the potential to ruin us. But, my friends, we do not grieve like the rest of this world does. We grieve with hope. So go ahead. Cry out to God. Cry for what and who you’ve lost. But remember that the same God who holds you is the One who holds your loved one. Remember that the tomb is empty. If you are standing by the side of somebody who’s grieving, keep standing. Keep loving. Keep sharing the reminder that this isn’t the end. Heaven is real, and the day is coming when all of God’s children will be there together, standing before Jesus face to face.
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