by Luke Veldt
Based on personal experience, Veldt shares how mission agencies can care for missionaries who are dealing with the loss of a loved one.
Some missionary friends of ours just lost their son to a sudden illness,” a friend wrote to me recently. “I thought that if anyone can understand what they’re going through, it’s your family. Do you think you could write them a letter and see if you can help them out?” Yes, we have an idea of what this family is going through. Nearly four years ago we lost our own 13-year-old daughter, Allison, to a cerebral hemorrhage. One day she was a happy, healthy, little girl; the next, she was gone. I’d gladly do whatever I could to help another family suffering the pain and shock of such a loss.
I quickly came to the conclusion, though, that a letter from a stranger at such a time would just as likely be an intrusion as a comfort. What I could do was to offer the family’s mission board some advice based upon my own experience. This I was able to do a few days later, speaking for several hours with a representative of the mission.
The suggestions I came up with are repeated here—along with comments from friends (who will remain anonymous) who have experienced similar losses. Most of the ideas pertain to the loss of any family member, not just a child. If some important aspects of a mission’s response (such as sustained prayer support) are omitted, it’s not because I don’t consider them worth mentioning, but because I thought it more helpful to focus on the areas most likely to be neglected.
1. Stop and Pay Attention
One of the most painful feelings connected with the loss of someone you love is the impression that the tragedy does not truly matter to anyone but you. After the memorial service, life for everyone outside the family goes on pretty much as before. It’s as if the life and death of the one you’re missing had no lasting significance.
From what I’ve seen, mission organizations usually excel at meeting the immediate needs of families who have suffered a tragic loss—providing flights, funds, services, meals, counseling, whatever is necessary. As vital as these services are, suffering families need more—they need to clearly see that a week after their loss, things at their mission are not back to business as usual.
Don’t treat their loss as something to be effectively dealt with so that the mission can get back to its real work; don’t be so busy fulfilling the Great Commission that you forget the priorities of the Lord of the Commission. The love and care we show to each other are an important part of the gospel we preach. One psalm reads, “Precious in the sight of the Lord is the death of his saints.” Let the pain of the suffering family touch your heart in the same way that it touches the heart of God. For this family, and probably for others as well, your response to the tragedy will define your mission.
Allison collapsed on a Sunday. As we waited at the hospital that day, desperate for a miracle, several of our supporting churches prayed for us during their services. One church, however, did more: my parents’ church, the one we attended during our last furlough, canceled their planned worship service and spent the whole morning in prayer for us. Please don’t misunderstand me—I was not at all disappointed in the responses of the other churches; in fact, I think they were totally appropriate. However, it’s a tremendous comfort to know that among our supporting churches, there’s at least one that’s family.
When tragedy strikes within your mission, handle it like family. Let it break your heart and stop you in your tracks; let it transform you. In the end, the attention you give to this family won’t interfere with your work or your purpose—it can only strengthen both. Nothing you spend time on today will be more important.
2. Get the Word Out
Timely, adequate communication is one of a mission’s first responsibilities in such a situation, and it’s an important one. A lot of people—mission colleagues, the extended family, friends, supporting churches—will be waiting for the details you offer. And a host of other people are available to pray if informed of the need. Consider these things:
• Be sure that news of the loss is communicated to your entire mission family, worldwide.
• Get news of the situation onto your website as quickly as possible. There are dozens of things a mission can do to help that are probably more important, but this one must not be ignored.
• Instead of requesting funds from existing and prospective supporters with your next bulk mailing, consider sending out a letter honoring the life and work of the person you’ve lost.
Effective communication of the mission’s concern and grief may well be more important than you realize. In fact, your response will, in the end, send a clear message one way or the other. Here are two examples.
Example 1: The circumstances of our family tragedy generated an unusual amount of attention, which continued for a long time. I was overwhelmed by the outpouring of sympathy from every direction. Our office staff and fellow missionaries seemed to go way out of their way to offer whatever help they could. Many of them traveled a long distance to attend the funeral. There seemed to be a deep and lasting impact on the mission.
Example 2: The fellowship at our mission’s area conferences has always been important to us. After a few of these, your colleagues become family; the children really connect and become like cousins. So when the daughter of a colleague in our area suddenly died, it was really hard on all of us. Added to this was the disappointment in our mission’s response—very little information was coming out of our home office, and neither the mission’s internal newsletter nor their website ever mentioned this tragedy. To me, it was a real slap in the face that our leaders wouldn’t take the time to properly acknowledge the death of one of our children.
3. Find Appropriate Way(s) to Honor the Memory of the Family Member
“Honor such people,” Paul urged the Philippians in regard to Epaphroditus, “because he came close to death for the work of Christ.” How greatly, then, we should honor those who die in that work! I did an Internet search on Nate Saint recently. It won’t surprise you to find that I was rewarded with a wealth of information about his life, death, and legacy. I followed that with a search for another missionary—a pilot friend of mine who died on the field a few years ago. That search, unfortunately, brought up few results, and none at all on his mission’s website. Yet my friend’s dedication to the gospel was probably no less than Saint’s. And though his death was not as dramatic, the price he and his family paid was the same.
I’ve been thinking today of the children my friend left behind. I wonder if they’ve ever searched the Web for word of their dad. I wonder if they wonder whether their father is remembered, whether his sacrifice (and theirs) is appreciated. Perhaps it is; it’s entirely possible that the mission has found a more fitting tribute than a mention on the Web. I hope so.
None of us are in this ministry to build memorials to ourselves; no one would put the memory of his or her loved one ahead of the furtherance of the gospel. Still, it’s fitting and appropriate to honor those who have given their all for Christ. We should cling tightly to the memory of those who thought so highly of our mission that they died in its service. The testimony of such people is a great asset to a mission organization. I could think of a dozen ways a mission could honor these people. I’ll share just three:
• Placing a plaque or other physical tribute in a prominent place at mission headquarters. The next time a child from that family visits the mission, let him or her see that his or her brother, father, or mother is valued and remembered.
• Renaming a scholarship or perpetual ministry. This goes a step beyond the usual memorial fund.
• Dedicating a permanent page on the mission’s website, with photos, a description of the person’s personality, etc. If it’s too complicated to make the page interactive (so that those who log on can share stories and sympathy), a link to a site that has that capability could easily be inserted.
Those who know me well will be surprised to see me place so much emphasis on the mission’s website. I’m not a computer person; I tend to be skeptical (some say reactionary) concerning technology. But the website lends itself so readily to this purpose that not using it for this purpose says a lot about us. It’s perplexing to me that missions do not take advantage of this opportunity, because so many of the reasons for having a website in the first place—to describe the nature and importance of our vision and work, to inspire people to give and to pray, to offer to supporters and missionaries a sense of unity and purpose—are served so well by remembering those we have lost.
I understand that going forward with any of these or similar steps may require preliminary discussion over some difficult questions:
• Will honoring the missionary in this way set a precedent we do not want to be committed to follow?
• Will we need to honor the memory of those we’ve lost in the past as well as those we may lose in the future?
• Do we differentiate between those who die on the field and those who die while on furlough in the States? Between short-term and career missionaries? Retired and active missionaries? Office staff?
• What do we do for a couple who loses a baby late in the pregnancy?
Hard questions to work through—indeed, it would perhaps be easier to drop the idea than work through the complications. But I have to believe it’s worth it to work through the difficulties and find a proper tribute. The benefits both to the mission and to the grieving family far outweigh the difficulties. Here’s one testimony:
Our mission agency did nothing at all to help us through our loss. My best girlfriend, then living in the States, splurged and sent money for friends here to buy a huge, beautiful arrangement of flowers. This splurging, though, at a time when I felt alone and confused, made me feel SO loved.
Go ahead, go overboard; the possible dangers involved in excessively honoring such an individual are nothing compared to the risk of taking inadequate notice of him or her.
The truth is that no tribute the mission can offer will, in the end, seem too much to the family. A plaque on the wall, whether dusty and neglected or treasured and honored, is a miserable substitute for a living, laughing Allison; a picture on a webpage cannot meet the needs of the children left behind after the death of their father. But the effort matters; let the family feel that if the tributes fall flat, they do so despite the full and thoughtful efforts of friends who love them and are brokenhearted over their loss.
4. Be Patient with the Family
Over the coming months try to keep in mind that although your life may have continued much as before, the life of the grieving family has not. Their life will never be the same; they have new priorities now. Give them time to work through those priorities. This does not mean this family will be less motivated to reach the lost; on the contrary, they will probably have a strong desire to see their suffering turned into eternal benefit.
They will also probably have a strong desire to live their lives more deliberately than ever before—to reflect upon their loss, to cut meaningless clutter out of their lives, to be wary of activity for activity’s sake, to spend more quality time with remaining family and friends. They may feel the need to pull out of some of their former activities and responsibilities; if so, they will probably find that harder to do than they had thought. It’s not an easy process to go through. Here’s one testimony:
One of the frustrations I experienced after the death in our family was with the increasing emphasis within our mission on new administrative procedures. I understand that things need to be done decently and in order, but the timing of these initiatives was particularly bad for me, as I was determined to spend my energy on things with more eternal significance. Once, after I spent two tiring days dealing with a new set of reimbursement procedures, my team leader called me and said, “Your expense report looks pretty good. In the future, though, your telephone bill should be listed under the category of ‘communication’ rather than ‘ministry expenses.’” “Okay,” I said. But what I wanted to say was, “It would be impossible for me to exaggerate the profundity of my indifference over which box you put that number in.”
Much of the frustration results from the fact that the energy level of this family is at an all-time low, and may remain low for a long time. (The loss of Allison left us grief-stricken and bone-weary. We slept poorly for months, and sometimes still do.) Even if they wanted to keep as busy as ever, it would probably not be possible—at least not for long.
A healthy and helpful team can support such a family by taking away some of the responsibilities that the family finds most cumbersome. The team can also help by understanding that the family’s shifting priorities are not a judgment on their teammates, but an attempt to make better use of their lives—and to become, in the process, better co-workers and friends than ever before.
5. Take Advantage of Insights Gained
As is so often the case with those you set out to help, you will be surprised at how much, and how soon, you can learn from those who are grieving. You may find much to encourage you in their new priorities, their deeper sympathy for others, their courage, and even their doubts and their questions.
In the heart-rending grief of your colleagues, you may find similar insight. In the days following the death in their family, they learned some things about God and about suffering that they could not have learned by completing a doctoral dissertation on the book of Job. You may notice, too, that the honest questions they ask in their grief are the sort of questions that make their faith that much more real and relevant to their non-Christian friends and neighbors. Grief equips us for ministry.
Allison died a week after one of our mission’s conferences. A year later, we returned for another conference, seeing some of our friends there for the first time since Allison’s death. One of the most helpful things our mission did for us was to invite us to address our colleagues in two of the sessions there. Not everyone who suffers loss wants to talk about the experience in front of a roomful of people, but I was very grateful for the opportunity. And I felt—without any sense of pride—that asking us to speak was a wise decision. We had learned some deep truths at great cost, and it was appropriate that we be asked to share them.
I suspect, though, that we were asked to speak not primarily so that others could learn from us, but so they could share with us—our grief, our struggles, our comfort in God. It was a difficult, emotional time for us and our colleagues, but also a very meaningful one. It was like taking the time to be family.
Luke Veldt, a church-planting missionary with Tentmakers Bible Mission, has lived in Romania and Spain. He is the author of Written in Tears: A Grieving Father’s Journey through Psalm 103 (Discovery House Publishing, forthcoming).
EMQ, Vol. 46, No.3, pp. 270-275. Copyright © 2010 Evangelism and Missions Information Service (EMIS). All rights reserved. Not to be reproduced or copied in any form without written permission from EMIS.