During your Initial Meeting with the Family (the First Day)
1. If you have a church hot line or prayer chain you will want to contact those people and begin asking people for prayer. Keep your information to this group as short as possible. If you don’t know details, simply ask for prayer based upon what you know. (Note that if you have not yet set up some type of “crisis team” within your church setting, I would encourage you to do so because this type of emergency is inevitable. )
2. Go to the family. If the family is at the hospital, go to the hospital information desk, let the person know you are a pastor, and that you have come to be with the family in need (tell them the family’s name). I always carry a Bible when I go into a setting like this – and I have Bible passages already marked for this occasion.
3. When you meet the family, be prepared for a highly emotional reaction and confusion on the part of the family. Just give the family members a hug. Touch is an important part now of your care giving. Say very little. I would suggest something like, “I am so sorry for your loss. Can you tell me what happened? Chances are the family may be confused as to what exactly happened if it was an accident and they were not present. Simply listen. Don’t ask any more questions then you need to. Don’t be surprised if you become an intermediary between the family and the hospital staff. If they are confused see if you can find a nurse or doctor who can explain the situation to the family.
4. It is very probable that the family will want to see their child’s body, if they haven’t already. Volunteer to go into the room with them. Sometimes hospitals are hesitant to have family members view the body if there has been a horrible accident and their child’s body is disfigured. If that is the case, it becomes part of your ministry to ask the family to hold off on viewing their child’s body until an appropriate time. I do think it is important for family members to see the body as soon as possible. Go with the family if they want. Don’t be at all surprised again by the emotions and/or words that are said when they see their child. This will be particularly true if the child has taken their own life. Some parents want to hold their child. If it is possible, I always encourage it. If there is one thing parents have told us repeatedly, when coming for counseling, it is that they wish they had held their child one last time. Again, this may be hampered by tubes and other medical devices connected to their loved one. Simply do everything you can to help the family express their grief. Don’t be afraid to reach out and touch the child yourself. I often touch their hand or arm. This is actually a comforting thing for the family to witness. It says to them that you care. I also look around the room to see if there is anyone who seems to be unable to express their emotions. I will usually go and stand beside them and place my hand on their shoulder. Again, you don’t need to talk.
5. I find scripture is important during this time. When it appears as though the family has had time to say and experience their time with the child I ask them if it would be alright to read some scripture. If they say no, then do not. When they say yes I am prepared to read a passage. Some of my favorite passages are:
Keep the reading short. Then offer a brief prayer for the family. I never read Romans 8:28. This is not the appropriate time for that verse!
6. If it seems appropriate, I ask the family if they have thought of what funeral home they would like to use for their child’s funeral arrangements. Chances are, they have not. So I leave them with information to help in this area. Since the hospital will be asking the same question, I find it helpful to the family if I do the asking first. Then I can pass along the information to the hospital staff. As you leave stop by the nurse’s station to let them know you are available for any needs the family may have. Give them a business card for easy reference. Don’t feel like you have to stay with the family until they leave the hospital. It may take them hours to say goodbye. Just use your own judgment regarding the length of your stay. But always let the family know when you are leaving.
7. Once you have accurate information regarding the child’s death, you can begin to release it. If the child committed suicide, I ask the family ahead of time if they would allow me to let our church family know that detail. If they would rather I not, then I don’t. Please note that this is not a "Facebook" kind of notification. Be careful how you use a social network for dissemination of information. The family may use this kind of network, but I would recommend that churches stay away from it. I also find it personally helpful to write a few notes about the facts for my own use and any concerns I might have regarding the family’s response to the death.
8. Finally, at this point you should begin connecting with people who may need to know about an impending funeral service. I usually contacted my music director, and other support staff. While you may not know details, it does give them a heads up on the need for their services in the near future.
NEXT - At the Funeral Home, the Visitation, the Funeral,and the Internment (the First Week)