What happens to those left behind when a family member passes away?

By Glynis Dickins

Some time ago, my son and his family had just arrived for a family get-together at his wife’s parent’s place. No sooner than had our daughter-in-law’s brother, his wife and family arrived, then that family was immediately informed of the terrible news of the sister-in-law’s sister having taken her own life.  Thankfully, she had been found by her husband rather than any of their children. But just to make the situation even worse for the sister-in-law of my son, the girls had not been on very good terms in recent times. In fact, they had not spoken for quite some months. 

It is times like these that questions form and gather to tumble down through the mountainside of our minds and hearts as the snowball becomes an avalanche of grief. To put it simply, where do we start? What do we do? And what can we say to a husband who has lost his wife and to three beautiful children who have lost their mother? Regardless of everything, these are the times when the church family can step up and just be there. I am pleased to hear and report that they did just that.

But what happens later? After the funeral and all the tears, hugs and kisses, what next? When the visits and the meals stop coming and the kids finally have to face the prospect of going back to school, what happens then? For the church family, the journey of being there has only just begun. And I am pleased to hear and report that it continues.

But what happens with the related families?  The sibling, (and only one here) such as my son’s sister-in-law? How is she faring now, and how (indeed if) is she coming to terms with the place she and her late sister were at prior to this completely unexpected tragedy? There are simply no words of explanation, no accounting for how families’ function and most of all, there is no room for judgment. These things must be kept in mind when anyone is called upon to face similar experiences. And – these principles apply no less to Christian families too.

In all my years of pastoral care among Christians as well as caring for people beyond the church’s doors, there are occasions when I have been appalled at the use of blame, snap judgment and some sort of perverted need to tell people to ‘get up and get on’, or words to that effect in the face of tragedy. Genuine sympathy which is based in God’s ‘agape’ love is never anything other than what is contained in those brilliant little words from the Apostle Paul, which are tucked away in 1 Corinthians 13.

I read them so often at weddings, but why do we not read them at funeral services? Because for whoever is called on to gather around people of tragedy must base their love and care in the principle of God’s love being offered freely and utterly unconditionally;

Love is patient and kind. Love is not jealous or boastful or proud or rude. It does not demand its own way. It is not irritable, and it keeps no record of being wronged. It does not rejoice about injustice but rejoices whenever the truth wins out. Love never gives up, never loses faith, is always hopeful and endures through every circumstance. (1 Corinthians 13:4 – 7 NLT)

Most striking of all of these words to me is the realization that we are perfectly able and equipped in the strength of God to carry out these actions without necessarily having to say a word! In fact, this passage, which I consider to be from the heart of God Himself, contains the very essence of being there. Yes, being there in support of people doing it tough is about travelling with them in (often) long-term and long-suffering loving support. Unless asked, words are so often just not needed.

So, how is my son’s sister-in-law doing today? As expected, she is still shocked and saddened, but gradually coming to terms with her relationship with the sister who is no longer here. She is learning to look back across their whole lives as siblings and treasure the best of times they shared, despite the episodes of dysfunctionality that affected their lives. And my son, his beautiful wife and their children? Here, I want to express a moment of warmth and admiration for them all as they have sought to maintain their particular support for the sister-in-law and her family.

My son has amazed me with his understanding and empathy for both families, as well as his determination to stick with the sister-in-law in support and encouragement of them. My son, the great organizer has simply recognized the principles I observed above: no words of explanation, no expectations of accounting for what happens, and above all, no judgment. Just get on with loving them as you hang out with them.


Glynis Dickins is an (almost!) retired pastor who has ministered in churches across the northern suburbs of Melbourne. She is passionate about family, friends, and people everywhere, especially those in need. She also loves good coffee and their chocolate Labrador x pointer puppy, Boomer who keeps her well-exercised as she and her husband Richard walk the very energetic and friendly Boomer.