In the third session of the Belonging series, our orientation to UUFSB and Unitarian Universalism, participants read aloud together a document that lays out the “meaning of membership.” In it we read that members of this community can expect “recognition, care and support by ministers, staff and fellow congregants during times of crisis and sorrow” and that we all agree to “extend a warm welcome, respect and appreciation to fellow congregants and guests and to those who join us in the future, and to respond to them with compassion and help in times of need.” This is our commitment. We give ourselves to one another’s care when life knocks us off our feet.
One deeply meaningful way to live this promise out is to choose, as often as possible, to respond to deaths of members of our community or of people they love. Go to the funeral home for visitation hours or to the memorial/funeral service if you possibly can. Your presence makes a HUGE difference to people who are bereft and grieving, and puts you in touch with their family story. Your words of condolence – “I’m so sorry”; “My heart is with you and your family”; “I was touched in this way by this person you loved who has died”; “I didn’t know him or her, but I know you and I care and I am here for you for the long run” – these messages are not trivial. They open connections to the flow of nourishing and sustaining love that actually helps people maintain their balance through the most difficult losses and circumstances.
Send a card with a personal message when you see the “Sad News” email message or read about a loss, diagnosis, illness or injury on the Joys and Concerns board in the sanctuary. Contact the family to see if there is some task you can help with once or regularly, or let the Pastoral Assistants know that you’d like to be of assistance. Offer to take care of one or two things the person can't do: bring the trash down to the curb, clean the litter box, feed and walk the dog, bring in the newspaper and mail, offer to pick up some groceries. Drop off a casserole or other type of food, help with insurance forms or bills, do a little cleaning or laundry, or take the kids out for a treat. Take care of the vegetable garden/ leaves/ lawn. Think about your own talents and create something comforting, handy or beautiful.
When you talk to people who are suffering, remember that your purpose is to offer empathy, tenderness and support. This is not about you. Not about advice or curiosity. Not about hierarchies of suffering. Not about fixing anything or judgments or prescriptions or challenges. It’s about bringing your whole, present and attentive self into each moment of speaking and listening. So what do you say? Here are some leading opening statements and questions: “I heard about what happened and I have been thinking about you and your family.” “If you’d like to talk, I’m here to listen.” “Can you tell me more about what’s going on for you?” “What feelings have been coming up for you today? What’s on your mind right now?” “What kind of sense are you making of all this right now?” Or, “No need to talk. Let me just be here with you.” “May I give you a hug, hold your hand?” “I'll go with you (to the appointment, to the funeral home, to the hospital).” “Would it be better if I leave you to rest?” And you can also ask questions like these when you are talking to others who are close to the person in pain. Follow their lead: offer talk, silent companionship, space, help, distraction. The connections we make in receiving and giving care strengthen our congregation, and we need those muscles to power everything else we do as a faith community!