April 7, 2024

Not Alone

Ministering to those experiencing spousal loss

Becky St. Clair

Within the space of one year Frank Hasel’s life went from one of a content husband and father to one of a grieving widower with three boys to raise on his own. His wife’s onset of cancer was swift and unbeatable, and the whirlwind of months of hospitals, treatments, lifestyle changes, and prayer ended in the most painful experience of Hasel’s life. 

“When you experience something like that, it raises a lot of questions about justice and God’s fairness,” Hasel says. “You have to learn to deal with that and find your way in a new reality you did not envision.”

Sailors’ Song at Stormy Sea

It was this that led Hasel to publish Love Is!, a book about losing his wife, and how he walked the path to healing. It’s a guidebook not only for those going through grief themselves, but for those wishing to help others they know experiencing loss. He also addresses the necessity of expressing one’s grief.

“Something we have lost in the West is the whole concept of ‘lament,’ ” Hasel comments. “It’s prominent in the Bible, but many Christians have a hard time dealing with tough questions and negative feelings, because they think that’s not how God wants them to feel. If you don’t learn to articulate lament, you miss out on something important to the grieving process.”

In Psalms, Hasel points out, the writers spend a significant amount of time lamenting that “in a world like this with a good, all-powerful, all-loving God,” X, Y, or Z shouldn’t happen.

“It isn’t fair,” Hasel says. “And we have to express this and not be scared of God not understanding us. He has gone through grief Himself, and He can take our questions. And in those moments we need community more than ever.”

In the preface to his book, Hasel quotes author Anne Lamott, who writes that sharing one’s thoughts and experiences with others in similar situations is like “singing on a boat during a terrible storm at sea. You can’t stop the raging storm, but singing can change the hearts and spirits of the people who are together on that ship.”1 

Hasel says, “I wrote this book because . . . being aware that we are not alone decreases our sense of isolation. Instead of being crushed by the sadness of our grief, listening to another’s story of hope can be like that song on a ship in a storm.”

Meet Them Where They Are

Talking about grief, loss, and sadness has not always been socially acceptable, even in the church. Some, like Hasel, are changing the norm, creating community and offering comfort for those walking one of the darkest paths of life. 

“It’s important that we are safe to be real within our church,” says Heidi Jones, hospice chaplain in Spokane, Washington. “Grief and loss are part of the human experience, and to notice and nurture only the happy parts of life is superficial. Jesus cared for the whole person; if our focus and reason for existing is Jesus, how can we ignore this part of reality?”

Jones serves as program coordinator for Renew Spokane, a collaboration of Adventist churches in the Spokane area. Renew Spokane operates through a pilot project grant provided by the General Conference Global Mission Urban Center. Through her work with hospice, Jones was sending a weekly email to support families processing loss, and as she continued to encounter grieving people both professionally and personally, she had an idea on how to connect those hurting people with Renew Spokane.

“I started thinking it would be good to have something specifically from the church to nurture those journeying through loss,” Jones says. So she created Peace, Be Still, a weekly e-devotional with content from people in different areas of expertise. Each issue includes a meditation thought provided by chaplains, pastors, grief counselors, or those who have experienced loss; a grief-related scripture promise; links to one or two encouraging songs; and a prayer.

“It started out in just our local churches,” Jones says. As word of mouth has spread, they have received requests from people in several states and even Canada. Currently more than 300 people receive Peace, Be Still.

“It’s helpful for those grieving to have support coming directly to them, especially if they just don’t feel ready to go somewhere for a support group or to meet with a grief counselor,” Jones points out. 

Acknowledging Sorrow

A particularly difficult time after loss is Christmas. While most of the world seems jolly and merry, those whose lives have been turned upside-down by loss feel they don’t fit in anywhere. 

“You’re struck by the contrast between what the season is supposed to be—happy and joyful and full of memory-making—and what you’re feeling,” Jones explains. “Facing the holidays without the ones you want to be with makes it one of the most painful times of year.”

To address this particular need, several Adventist churches in the Greater Spokane area joined together to host a Blue Christmas service, something Jones had experienced while living in Loma Linda, California. This interdenominational event brings people together who are navigating grief during the holidays and provides time and space to process how they’re feeling and to remember their loved ones.

“For the grieving, the expectation to be merry amidst this ‘most wonderful time of the year’ is unrealistic and out of touch,” Jones says. “Blue Christmas acknowledges the pain, and gives the grieving a place to go where they don’t have to be alone with their feelings. It’s a time to honor the memory of the one who is missed and seek the comfort of the Holy Spirit as they enter a sacred moment with other grieving hearts.”

With candlelight and contemplative music, Blue Christmas incorporates Scripture, dramatic readings, and congregational singing into a program that speaks to grieving hearts and offers the sense of belonging and validation they need.

In its first year more than 75 people attended the Blue Christmas service. 

One non-Adventist pastor who attended Blue Christmas later sent the church a card, thanking them for providing such a meaningful service.

“He had recently lost an immediate family member, and, as a busy pastor responsible for a busy congregation, was having a difficult time finding the space to honor and acknowledge his sorrow,” Jones says. “This event nurtured his heart and provided him with a space to be honest with his grief, and experience the comfort of God’s presence.”

Sheila Hendricks, a member of Sligo church in Takoma Park, Maryland, comments, “It’s important for people to not feel like they’re the only ones going through this experience, when so many others have shared it.” Hendricks is cofounder of Heartlifters Ministries, which ministers specifically to those navigating the loss of a spouse—whether through death or divorce.

Shared Experiences

Hendricks lost her husband to cancer at age 59, and the sense of loneliness was profound, particularly when it came to church. 

“During the week you can keep busy, but the loneliness of going to church alone is very, very hard,” Hendricks adds. Additionally, she felt friendships she’d enjoyed prior to the death of her husband slipping away. “A lot of friends disappeared because their husbands no longer had anyone to hang around with when we were together,” she explains. “Many people I’ve talked to have experienced this. Your friends change.”

When Hendricks started talking with a few friends whose husbands had also passed away, she realized she wasn’t the only one who felt alone. 

“You lose half your identity when you lose your spouse,” she says. “And that loneliness is shared. When I heard the stories other women were telling, I felt a passion growing in me to do something.”

One of those women was Charlotte Conway, fellow Sligo church member and longtime treasurer for the church. She and Hendricks started talking and realized they had a lot in common—including late husbands named Bob, and their desire to minister to those experiencing the loss of a spouse.

Conway lost her husband to Alzheimer’s after 54 years of marriage, and although their experiences are different, Conway says, they all have a shared understanding of grief. “It’s traumatic,” she says.

Hendricks adds, “You can’t heal by being stoic. It helps so much to have someone holding your hand as you traverse the grief—someone who understands you’re hurting in a way many others can’t comprehend.”

Together Hendricks and Conway started Heartlifters as a way to reach out to and support others who had been through what they had. The ministry has grown over its seven years, and now has a committee of eight overseeing its operation. As an official ministry of Sligo church, Heartlifters has its own budget and is enthusiastically supported by the pastoral staff.

“It’s a difficult ministry, and one we wish we didn’t need,” Conway says. Though originally they didn’t want to focus on grief seminars, the need was clear, and now Heartlifters provides regular grief recovery seminars in addition to their community-building events in an effort to find joy after loss.

When Hendricks’ husband died, her best friend sent her a care package. This package was the inspiration behind what Heartlifters calls “Sunshine Boxes,” which anyone can request for a grieving person, even if they’re out of state.

These special boxes include items and notes specifically focused on self-care and hope, such as a candle and a book. On the anniversary of the spouse’s death, Heartlifters sends a “thinking of you” card with a packet of forget-me-not seeds to plant in memory of their spouse. They also send cards on Valentine’s Day and Christmas, two of the most difficult holidays to endure after the loss of a spouse.

“A complete stranger called me one day, devastated because she had lost her husband suddenly and was trying to pick up the pieces,” Conway shares. “We talked for two hours about our shared experience. Heartlifters has meant so much to her.”

Conway also recalls meeting two women from Canada who joined them for two grief seminars. “They had a hard time finding an Adventist church providing grief recovery, and were thrilled to find Heartlifters,” Conway says. 

A unique aspect of Heartlifters is that they don’t just focus on people who have lost spouses to death; they also reach out to those who have lost them to divorce. 

“I think we’ve forgotten about this particular group,” Conway says. “We don’t want to talk about it because the church doesn’t talk about it. But it’s just as profound a sense of grief and loneliness as losing them to death, and it’s just as important to process that grief and heal with others who understand.”

The Heartlifters team includes a couple of divorced individuals, and their perspective, Hendricks says, is invaluable. 

“There’s a need, and we have to reach out,” she adds. “God has placed this ministry on our hearts, and we hope we can honor Him by helping those who are hurting.”

Ministry That Moves

Help can take many forms, and sometimes it doesn’t take the form of what we expect. In his book Hasel has an entire chapter on things that can be helpful and things that really aren’t, including what we should and shouldn’t say in an attempt to comfort someone who’s grieving. 

“Many people know others who have gone through this experience,” Hasel says. “The challenge is often that they don’t know how to relate to them. Usually they mean well, but since they’ve never experienced that particular pain, they often say things that actually hurt and are not comforting at all.”

Some of the examples of what not to
say include:

“It could be worse.”

“Everything happens for a reason.”

“At least . . .”

“I know how you feel.”

In his book Hasel points out that what grieving people need most are not bits of advice or words of wisdom, but “practical help and calm presence.”2 In fact, he says, there need not be words at all.

“Just being there with them, silently sharing the pain of their loss, attentively listening to the unexplainable and deeply perplexing things of life without trying to give a reason for this tragedy . . . is the best we can offer.”3

Hasel also includes a list of suggestions for “helpful help,” including ways to spend meaningful time with the person. 

“Sometimes people act as if grief is a contagious disease,” Hasel writes. “It might make you uncomfortable and sad, but . . . showing up for a . . . person you care about means that you love them enough to be with them through their hardest moments.”4

Jones agrees. “People who know you coming alongside to journey with you in your current painful reality is really powerful,” she says. “This kind of ministry is what moves the church from beyond the Sabbath morning formalities to the needs of individuals.”

Navigating the loss of a spouse can be made less overwhelming with the support and comfort of others, and this is where the church can shine. Churches can and should be sanctuaries of support, providing solace and a sense of belonging—particularly during life’s most difficult journeys. 

“As people realize the church cares, they connect that to God, and they begin to feel God still cares,” Jones says. “We are God’s hands and heart on earth, and we should use these to remind people they are not alone, their pain is noticed, and we are there to walk alongside.”

1 Anne Lamott, Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life (New York: Anchor Books, 1995), p. 237.

2 Frank M. Hasel, Love Is!: A Journey of Grief, Grace, and Gratitude (Eugene, Oreg.: Cascade, 2024), p. 85.

3 Ibid.

4Ibid., p. 94.