words by: Ferree Hardy
I suspected my friend was having a hard time, but I didn’t know for certain until another friend phoned me; she told me to go to our friend’s house and let myself in. When I got there, I knocked on the door and cautiously opened it. There she was, sitting on the floor of the kitchen, rocking back and forth. The friend who’d called sat next to her. At first, I was confused. Did we need to go to the emergency room, I wondered? But it didn’t make any sense: they were both crying. I hurried over and sat down on the floor. When I heard the news, I cried too.
“Ministry of presence” is a term used by chaplains and grief counselors for a very effective way that friends and family can help grieving people—just be there. At the time, I didn’t know it was “a ministry” to sit on the kitchen floor and cry with my friends, but it was. I probably should have stayed longer.
Do you remember the story of Job? His three friends illustrate the ministry of presence. “Now when Job’s three friends heard of all this evil that was come upon him, they came every one from his own place… for they had made an appointment together to come to mourn with him and to comfort him. And when they lifted up their eyes afar off, and knew him not, they lifted up their voice, and wept; and they rent every one his mantle, and sprinkled dust upon their heads toward heaven. So they sat down with him upon the ground seven days and seven nights, and none spake a word unto him: for they saw that his grief was very great.” (Job 2:11-13 KJV)
This is a perfect example of the ministry of presence. They wept with Job. Romans 12:15 commands us to “weep with those who weep.” Job’s friends did well at first, but then—unfortunately—they opened their mouths. Pent-up questions, arguments, and accusations boiled over, growing worse and worse until God Himself stepped in. To be fair to Job’s friends, I think we’d all agree it’d be hard to sit with someone for seven days without saying a word. Maybe that’s why it’s considered a ministry. It’s not always easy, and it takes patience and self-control.
The most important thing to know about the ministry of presence is that you don’t need to bear the responsibility for saying anything. You understand that you cannot fix suffering people with your words. There’s no recipe for grieving—a little bit of this, a little bit of that; stir; let it simmer for an hour, and then you can move on—No! Instead, you come alongside and feel the burden of pain that weighs on your friend. You realize that you don’t have the power to lift that burden, but you do have the ability to silently pray, listen, and lift the grief to the God who does have the power to lift up the downcast soul.
Funerals are a public opportunity for the ministry of presence. You might think no one will notice if you do not attend, but what if no one else came either? Your simple presence is greatly appreciated. Cards, meals, and visits afterwards are too, even if they are months later. It’s better to receive late condolences than none at all.
The ministry of presence means that you reach out to the widow and widower. You go to visit them. This doesn’t have to take all day. You also include them in your life. Sit with them in church. Church is often the loneliest spot on the planet for widows and widowers. Invite them to your gatherings, even when you think they will say no. Please keep asking and inviting; it shows that you care.
If you’ve not been widowed, you probably don’t understand why it’s so hard for some people to adjust to widowhood. But after the death of a spouse, everything drastically changes.
Try to imagine walking into your own house the day after the funeral. It’s so quiet and empty that your footsteps almost echo. Your heart pounds; you hear each breath you take. Or you might unconsciously hold your breath and feel like you’re suffocating. You don’t hear your spouse’s familiar greeting when you come home. Your bed is empty, and the sheets are cold. You might not have anyone to eat supper with. Or, if you’re a parent with children at home, there’s no one who can give you a break when you have a splitting headache or the flu. This is why a ministry of presence is so important; the loss is so huge. It’s unspeakable—there are no words to describe the depth. Mere words cannot fix it.
The PRESENCE of people is what matters. This means you don’t tell a widow, “Let me know if you need anything.” That’s too vague, and it’s too much of a job for her. She won’t let you know. She can’t! Her life is in chaos and shock; she has no idea what she needs.
Instead, offer her your presence and your ordinary friendship. “Ordinary” and “normal” are precious commodities when life seems to have shattered. Small talk about the weather and the neighborhood is fine because it’s familiar. Also share your favorite memories, but be sensitive so that it’s not all about you and your experiences. Don’t compare others’ losses either. Make it a two-way conversation so the widower can open up and talk if he or she would like. Ask questions, listen well, sit, and chat.
The ministry of presence takes time. I’m often in too much of a rush, but I’m learning and growing.
Will you learn with me? It all starts with a compassionate heart and being a good friend. Do like Job’s friends did at first: “…No one said a word to him because they saw how great his suffering was.” Just be there
Ferree Hardy has helped thousands of widows through her book, “Postcards from the Widows’ Path,” small groups, speaking, and personal coaching, but touching one life at a time is what matters most to her. She holds a BA from Moody Bible Institute, and was a pastor’s wife in Ohio for over twenty years before her first husband died. She’s happily remarried now, and her readers know that moving seems to have become a hobby for her. But she also enjoys backyard chickens, aims to read fifty books a year, and loves to bake. Learn more by visiting her blog.