How Christians and churches can minister to those whose suffering seems endless

When there’s a death, a serious illness, injury, or other crisis affecting a church family, the leadership and parishioners generally act quickly to provide support for those hurt or grieving. When one member of the Body hurts, the rest of the Body feels that pain and acts accordingly. That’s the way it’s supposed to be.

But something happens when the pain, illness, injury, and grief continue for long periods of time. That’s why I generally wait until a few weeks have passed before sending a note of sympathy or taking over a meal. Our collective memories are short. Things are overwhelmingly busy during visitations, funerals, and home visits. Then as the days and weeks pass, it gets very quiet and the grief, still fresh, is many times increased by loneliness. Part of the Body continues to hurt.

In the same way, people who are ill, suffer injuries, lose jobs or even homes receive, as a rule, help and support initially. However, if the illness is chronic, the injuries severe enough to require a long period of time to recuperate, or if the job and home loss leads to homelessness, hands-on support dwindles after a few weeks. Sometimes it disappears altogether.

The worst is when support doesn’t come at all.

When that happens, those still in the midst of difficult situations are hurt and confused. Have we been forgotten? Are we unimportant? Does the rest of the Body feel our ongoing pain, which continues to hurt all of the Body as a whole? Or does the church, in the midst of all its busyness, just move on while those hurting press their noses to the window watching their former world go on without them?

I believe that most people mean well. But the American culture of busyness and “Let’s move on now” leaves those who are suffering for long periods of time falling between cracks, into the dust. That culture may be all-American, but it’s certainly not a biblical one. It’s striking that nowhere in the New Testament does Jesus allow himself to be rushed, especially if the sick, maimed, or children are involved. Nor does He allow them to be rushed.

People who seem to live in crisis, or experience long seasons of difficulties or illness, are all too often not only forgotten, but blamed for their circumstances. Some begin to question why they’re suffering. Is there some hidden sin for which God is judging them? Sadly, they may become the subject of gossip or suspicion if they’re not filling a pew or chair soon enough to be important again. They cease to earn the ministry they so desperately need. No matter that they may be choosing between fuel and food.

Believe me, no one would choose the kind of injuries or chronic illness that keeps them from fully participating in the life they once relished. But, after a certain amount of time passes, when even a request for a pastoral visit for nothing more than prayer is ignored, you can’t help but wonder, “Why should I remain part of a Body that is oblivious to my pain?”

My mother entered a nursing facility when she was only sixty-one years old, the age I am now. Watching her being rolled out of my childhood home into an ambulance is one of the most wrenching things I have ever witnessed. I knew she would never come home.

So did she. She tried to wear a brave face for all of us for awhile. She had cards and visitors again, for a time. Mama so looked forward to those cards. That is, she looked forward to them until the day she opened a card from a life-long friend and a salvation tract fell out. It crushed her.

I do want to add here how much I appreciated all those who never forgot her, who visited without fail, and let her know she was loved. Most of those people were family, neighbors, and a few people from our church.

Those people, loving souls all, did special things to make her life as normal as possible. (But Mama never let me put a telephone in her room. She said she didn’t know what to talk about. And she put her foot down when I told her I was leaving my teaching job to help her out. “Oh, no you’re not,” she ordered.) She was always happy to see visitors, although I think it was hard for her to hear their “normal.”

I particularly appreciated our neighbor, Alice, who lived across the street and had a hair salon in her house. She fixed Mama’s hair for the for the occasion of meeting her future son-in-law, now my husband of twenty-eight years. It was the last time she was able to be dressed up, waiting for us in her wheelchair. She had a stroke shortly after that and was never out of bed again. Mama died just before Christmas in 1989, only three months before our only child was born and named after her.

Our beautiful daughter was born in 1990. It wasn’t until about a year later that I really had time to mourn my mother’s passing. And then, after our baby’s fifteen-month MMR vaccine, she lost most of her hearing. The rest disappeared a few years later after a DPT booster. At about the same time, I had the first of several painful surgeries, including a tonsillectomy when I was forty-two. (That thing about the ice cream? It’s a lie.)

Then the same pattern emerges. People are supportive for awhile. But after that, unless you’re “important,” the support fades away. It’s funny now, but I can’t ever forget “The Night the Meal Never Showed Up.”

I had just had my tonsils out, and to say I was miserable is an understatement. A lady from our St. Louis church had promised dinner for my husband and daughter, and said that her husband was on his way with the meal.

Hours passed. The meal-man called twice to verify directions. Our home was pretty easy to find. More hours passed. Finally, he called one last time. With exasperation, he declared, “I’m sorry, but this is just a lost cause. I’m going home.”

That’s us. A lost cause. Guess what? It hurts to laugh after surgery. I don’t know what my dear ones ate that night or what happened to that meal. My suspicion, knowing his wife, is that the meal-delivery husband ditched it on the way home. I didn’t dare rat him out or write a thank you note!

The only other incident that even came close to that one is when a woman from our Colorado church refused to pour her meal into my pot because she thought there were rust spots in my stainless steel pot. In my defense, they were very clean spots. I was just trying to be polite when I offered to wash her pot so she could take it on home. Did I mention I was on crutches?

Hopefully, you’re cringing or laughing along with me right now. Sometimes people really don’t know what to do or say. Others are, quite frankly, oblivious to your particular situation. They’ve never watched someone have their home taken from then, seen the aftermath of an accident, or dealt with illnesses and disabilities that affect families for years, even lifetimes. Some have never lost a loved one or been to a funeral.

Others think you don’t deserve help. One person half-heartedly dropped by a meal and saw our empty refrigerator the day before Thanksgiving. I was too ill to sit upright that day. Her parting words? “Well, I hope you have a grateful heart.”

Her words felt like a slap. The Body hurt. God’s word teaches us that when one part of the Body hurts, the whole Body suffers. What can we do, as the Body of Christ, when its members are in pain?

What can individuals do?

  • Meals are always welcome. Find out if there are any dietary restrictions. And try to take dishes in disposable containers. Returning dishes can be difficult. Don’t forget beverages and kid foods! I particularly appreciated meals I could freeze for later.
  • Offer to run errands. Sometimes it’s really hard to get to the store, pick up prescriptions, mail packages, etc. An hour of your time could be a lifesaver.
  • Take care of the kids for awhile and give Mom and Dad some time together, or single parents a break.
  • Offer to mow or do other yard work or minor repairs, like changing light bulbs.
  • Offer to give rides to the doctor or therapist if needed.
  • Offer to do basic cleaning — vacuuming, dusting, dishes, cleaning bathrooms, changing sheets, and doing laundry.
  • If a small child is inpatient, drop by the hospital and give Mom a chance to get a shower!
  • If the family is hurting financially, give if you can in the form of cash or gift cards. Or offer to help with an outstanding bill.
  • Send cards, emails, or electronic messages. Beware of those bearing platitudes.
  • Live out of town? Call in a fun pizza or Chinese delivery for their dinner. Don’t forget to give Mom or Dad a head’s-up!

Many people are shy about asking for help. Don’t say, “Let me know if there’s anything I can do.” Just show up!

What can your church do?

  • Pastor or priest, the family needs to see you or hear from you. I understand that you are overwhelmed with responsibilities, and that you have families of your own. If it’s not possible for you to visit, please send an associate pastor, deacon, or vestry member in your stead. Then please do send a card or email or phone the family. Do not ignore requests for prayer or support if the individual or a close family member is severely depressed or makes any suggestions of suicidal thoughts. You have a legal and moral duty of care to act immediately on any serious suggestions of self-harm. Strict confidentiality is a necessity.
  • Pray for the patient, or send trained associates to bring communion and healing prayers.
  • Don’t wait for people who are hurting to ask for help. Respectfully, ask about their needs and meet them as you can.
  • Send someone to be by their side during surgeries and serious illnesses. Offer to stay with the patient to give the family a break for a meal away from the hospital. Or offer to go out and bring a meal or a special coffee or tea.
  • Don’t forget the siblings. If they have a brother or sister who is ill or injured, they’re hurting, too. And it’s easy for them to feel a little pushed aside because of all the attention their sibling receives. Yes, they need to be understanding, but that reaction is normal. If I take a gift to a sick child, I try to take something small for each sibling, gifting them first.
  • Give the same level of ministry to every person, from the pastor’s or priest’s family to those unable to participate as fully as others. Many in your congregation may have to work on Sundays, work out-of-state periodically, suffer from chronic illness, or simply not have the means to get to church often. God is no respecter of persons. If one church member gets a 24/7 sign-up prayer sheet for serious illness or injury, every church member in the same situation should.
  • Treat and minister to the mentally ill just as you would anyone physically ill or injured. The mind is part of the Body. And please, never downplay the effects of mental illness such as PTSD or depression. You could save a life.

As much as is in your power, never let a member or attendee “fall between the cracks.” It’s dark down there. A person so forgotten may never darken a church door again.

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