Ministry of Presence

DC widow blog writer Marjorie Brimley smiles in black and white photo with friends Becky and Michelle

My friend Kumar is a pastor.  As part of his work, he runs a bereavement group, and we meet up sometimes to talk about loss and how to help people make meaning of their lives. 

One day, I was telling him about some of the things that people had done for me after Shawn died, and he said, “we call that the ministry of presence.”

I liked that phrase, so I asked him to tell me more.  He said the following,

The basic idea is this – as a pastor, you can preach a good sermon, but in the end, did you go on the journey with your parishioners?  You may pray for members of your congregation, but are you putting those prayers into action?  As a clergy member, your presence is your ministry.  This may mean sitting with someone in the waiting room of the doctor’s office or showing up to a lonely kid’s basketball game.  There are lots of examples of this, but the basic question is this: were you present?

I’ve thought a lot about loneliness and about the changing relationships that happen when a person is widowed.  When you find yourself without some of the close friendships you once had, it’s a secondary loss for sure, but a loss nonetheless.  I honestly don’t know how it happens.  But maybe it has something to do with how those around the bereaved show (or don’t show) that they care.  Maybe it has something to do with the actions that we take.

So whether you’re a pastor or just a regular person who wants to be there for a dear friend, the message is the same.

Just show up.

My dad knows a lot about this.  He’s shown up every single day for me, and continues to do so.  When I ask him why he’s forsaken a retirement of golf and Texas football games to instead take care of his grandkids, he always tells me some version of the phrase, “it’s what should be done.”

I’m not saying that anyone needs to give up all of his or her free time or move across the country to care for a troubled or grieving family member.  My dad is extraordinary in that way.  But there are many other people who have stayed in my life through this “ministry of presence.”

Avid readers of my blog (and others who know me personally) know that my dear friends Becky and Michelle have done this from the beginning.  They coordinated food and rides for my kids when Shawn was sick, they sat with me in the hospital as he was dying and they planned Shawn’s funeral.  In fact, there was a whole group who coordinated this for me, and for that I am forever grateful.

But it was what Becky and Michelle did for me after time had passed that remains significant.

They kept showing up.

When they went out with their husbands, they called me and invited me along.  When they stopped to pick up my kids, they also asked how I was doing and listened to my response….even when I never asked either of them about their days.  They came over with wine on nights in the summer when I couldn’t find a sitter but still desperately needed human companionship.

When they knew something hard was approaching, like a significant date or a big school event, they texted me.  “Hi friend,” the text might read, “I’m thinking of you right now and wanted you to know that.”

There’s probably also a thousand things they’ve done that I don’t know about – times when they’ve counseled other people about how to approach me (or shielded me from information I didn’t need to worry about) and discussions that they’ve had with mutual friends about how best to care for me. In fact, right after Shawn got sick, I walked in on them having a conversation about my two best friends from college, Kelly and Paige. “How do you know who they are?” I asked.

“Oh, we’ve already been in touch,” Becky said.

You see, without me asking, they had taken it upon themselves to connect with other people who could support me. People they didn’t know.

What an act of love.

It takes a lot to do this “ministry of presence” in the way that Becky and Michelle have done it.  I know it does.

But it doesn’t have to be so involved.  Plenty of other people have showed up at my door with food.  Plenty of other people have hung out with me at parties when I arrived solo.  Plenty of other people have taken an extra second to send me a text when they realized that I might be down.

I appreciate all of the prayers that people tell me they are sending my way.  I feel them and I love that my family is being wrapped up in heavenly love.

But more than the prayers, it’s the presence of others that’s counted for me. 

11 Replies to “Ministry of Presence”

  1. I soooo agree with you! Whenever somebody says to me now “I want to be helpful but I don’t know what to say”, then my answer is always “Then don’t say anything. Just hug.”
    Marlene (AfterTheHeartbreak)

    1. Yes! Or “just go to the grocery store for them!”

  2. What a beautiful concept! There have been many many times I knew I needed something but didn’t know what, so I didn’t ask. But presence, just to be there with me or for me and my girls in a way that just showed they cared was what I realize I needed. 💙 Thank you for sharing this.

    1. Yes, I think it’s SO HARD to ask for help – often because we have no idea what we really need. But the kindness – that’s always wonderful and always something that makes me feel better.

  3. So true. Life is busy but some know it does not move on so fast for those who have suffered loss. Sometimes, i want to shout during my quotidian days, HEY, SHE IS NOT HERE ANYMORE AND I DON’T KNOW WHAT TO DO ABOUT IT!!! But it would not make any difference except prove that I’m losing it… yeah.
    But what does make a difference is those who reach out to me to get a pulse on the present by text, call, email or lunch. Thanks to all those who take the time to be there. I have to say, likewise, my priorities in life have profoundly changed since the loss of my wife. Loneliness … I want to recognize it and help others through it. Thanks again for this forum. It helps break the loneliness.

    1. And thank you for reading! I agree – it’s those who still check in with me, even after all this time, who really are doing a ministry of presence. I feel so grateful to have them in my life.

  4. Having no idea of what we really need can prevent us from getting help even when proffered. Shortly after my wife died, someone invited me to dinner. Since a friend was staying with me and preparing most of the meals, I declined the offer. It was only later that it dawned on me that I had turned down something more than the meal – something I really needed.

    1. Yes, I agree. It’s not about the food or the groceries or whatever – it’s about the care and human connection.

  5. Michael Zoosman says: Reply

    Pastor Kumar’s words ring true…as do yours once again. Thank you again for sharing this.

    1. I love that you love this. You two would really like each other!

  6. The Loneliness of Loss is a monotonous languor….
    Autumn Song by Paul Verlaine

    When a sighing begins
    In the violins
    Of the autumn-song,
    My heart is drowned
    In the slow sound
    Languorous and long

    Pale as with pain,
    Breathe fails me when
    The hours toll deep.
    My thoughts recover
    The days that are over,
    And I weep.

    And I go
    Where the winds know,
    Broken and brief,
    To and fro,
    As the winds blow
    A dead leaf.

    “Chanson d’automne” Paul Verlaine 1866

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