Interview by Mary Martin. Photos courtesy of Faith & Grief Ministries
Fran Shelton is one of three founders of Faith & Grief Ministries, a Dallas-based organization that began in 2007. Fran received a Master of Divinity and Doctor of Ministry from Austin Presbyterian Theological Seminary. Her doctoral project was “Blessed are Those Who Mourn: Offering Comfort Through Worship and Theological Reflection.” She is also the author of No Winter Lasts Forever: A Memoir of Loving Bob and Loathing Alzheimer’s, a book describing the years that her husband lived with Alzheimer’s disease. We asked Fran to share about her experience with grief and how loss intersects with community and mental health.
Can you share about your own story, and how grief has impacted your life?
Grief has impacted my life personally and professionally. When I was a sophomore in high school both of my grandfathers died. My maternal grandfather, PawPaw, was enjoying his notion of an ideal afternoon—playing solitaire, sipping wine, and watching a wrestling match when he had a fatal heart attack. I stayed with my Grandma for two weeks. This was a meaningful time in several ways, primarily providing me a crash course in bereavement and the importance of listening to persons who are grieving. Two months later, my paternal grandfather, Big Bill, died in his sleep. He lived with us, took care of most of the grocery shopping and meal preparation, and assisted us with making ends meet, carpooling, and my history homework. With these larger-than-life and much adored personalities no longer living, moving and speaking words of love and encouragements, the foundation of my life cracked and shifted.
In 2002 I was called to serve at Preston Hollow Presbyterian Church as associate pastor for congregational care. Two weeks after I began, I facilitated a six-week grief workshop that had been scheduled. The participants taught me about the nature and dynamics of grief. I was overcome with the power of their stories, their resilience, and how quickly the class gelled. I decided to pursue a doctor of ministry to learn as much as I could about grief and to learn ways to comfort those who mourn. This call also encompassed guiding families in planning memorial services, preaching or assisting in the services, and staying in contact with the families afterward. These families reshaped my heart and my husband affectionately began calling me “Funeral Fran.”
How did you first connect the concept of faith and grief together? How did those ideas form how Faith & Grief Ministries helps individuals and families today?
The concept of faith and grief together first connected with me when President John F. Kennedy was assassinated. I was reared in the Roman Catholic tradition and I remember that my Catechism Class gathered to say the Rosary for him and to offer prayers that he would quickly move through purgatory into heaven. As a third-grade theologian, I found this ritual odd and unnecessary. I did, however, notice that persons were drawn to their houses of faith, that prayers were lifted for President Kennedy’s family and our country, and that these prayers and questions about life and death continued around my family’s dinner table.
How have you seen grief affect someone’s overall mental health, and what practices are helpful for processing through the loss of a person, a job, or other circumstance?
Grief, involuntary responses to unbidden or bidden detachments from persons or plans, from expectations or excellent health have all-encompassing affects (physical, mental/emotional, social, and spiritual) on individuals and their families. Whereas, grief is individualistic, it tends to be physically exhausting for the majority of persons. Sleeping and eating routines are topsy-turvey. Our culture tends to honor one’s “thinking or thoughts” on topics and avoids, shuns and dishonors recognition of one’s emotions in signal moments such a death of a loved one. Times of depression are normal in the grief and mourning process as long as they are not ongoing and they do not keep one from normal responsibilities. The gut-wrenching affect on one’s social life in grief is often overlooked by those who have not experienced the death of a loved one. Reflections voiced by participants in grief workshops include, “Friends were so attentive at first. Now I don’t hear from them.” “It hurts so much that nobody wants to mention my loved one’s name. It’s like they are afraid.” Other comments include: “I was _________ spouse, (parent)(sibling)(child)(colleague). Who am I now?” “What am I supposed to do with the rest of my life when I don’t feel like living.”
Extensive research reveals that when persons do not reconcile or actively process their grief, they experience higher levels of depression, addition, obesity, untamed anger and social isolation. A great number of teens and adults in addiction treatment centers have unresolved grief issues. They have tried to “drown” or “numb” their grief because processing it by talking, writing, creating art is too painful. They have tried to go around their grief rather than walk through it with the support of community.
One of the most helpful practices in the grief and mourning process is to talk and or write about your experience. Tell your story. Speak about the death of your loved one over and over again until the story becomes more bearable to speak and it becomes more succinct. Give voice to his/her name. Remember times of joy and remorse. Identify your feelings. This practice requires different amounts of time for individuals and it is most helpful if your story can be shared in a trusted community of persons who “get grief,” a spiritual director, pastor, Stephen Minister or Licensed Professional Counselor. Often friends without experience with grief place a timeline on the process and grow weary of listening. Other family members have their own story to share because the relationship was different.
There are spiritual disciplines that promote healing and comfort in times of grief (loss of relationship, job, move, etc) and bereavement (death of a loved one). Breath prayers are a tremendous help to me because it requires that I pay attention and focus on the simple yet profound act of breathing—breathing in and feeling your body move; exhaling and feeling release of tension. This discipline can be practiced with prayer. For example, (Slowly inhale through nose and silently pray) God of great compassion/ (Exhale slowly through mouth and silently pray) Bind my heart with love and mercy OR God of wisdom and grace/Guide and direct my life.
Can you share about the importance of community and connection in a time of grief, and how people can connect right now during social distancing?
The Creator of the universe has blessed us with countless gifts and I believe community and connection are in the Top 10. Looking at the word community we readily see comm(meaning with) & unity. “With unity” those who are grieving have a higher degree of understanding the wide range of emotions one feels—the sense of lostness, fear, anger, relief, all-time sadness. “With unity” they can feel free to cry, remain silent, talk/talk/talk, laugh without judgment. In serving those in the process of grief, I am in awe at the authenticity and acceptance between the individual (former strangers) who quickly become connected and begin forming new friendships. The connection is a gift. It allows them to see that “they are not alone” and “they are not going crazy” (they are grieving!). A voice in the community may connect with what an individual has felt and not been able to articulate. A recent circumstance for one person may be a past experience that has granted words of wisdom and compassion for another.
In this time of social distancing, many have become keenly aware of the importance of community in their lives. I am grateful for the advancement of technology prior to Covid-19. I even get less frustrated with user names and passwords required to connect with family and friends! Faith & Grief acted with agility to increase the online presence of opportunities for community.
Whereas, it may be difficult for those grieving to take initiative, now is the time to pick up the phone and dial a friend; join a parade of cars to wish happy birthday, graduation congrats; jot a handwritten note of kindness, Zoom in for book clubs, special studies, or a lesson on a subject of interest.
With unity, this is an especially important time to reach out to those who wrestling with situational or chronic depression and talk about something other than the pandemic, politics, or the economy. This season of spring seems especially colorful. A friend commented to me the other day, “I feel like I’m breathing in beauty!” Thinking about her comment gave me a lift throughout the entire day!
The Faith & Grief team works closely with people from many different faiths. What commonalities have you witnessed across different faith expressions as people mourn?
Wendy Fenn, one of the three founders of Faith & Grief, often says, “Grief is a leveler.” In times of grief, persons are in one accord—they ache, they are numbed by unprecedented sadness and they yearn for the situation to be different. In this time, there are no arguments or concern about doctrine, there are no questions about levels of education or household budgets, there is no notice of fashion or etiquette. What there is a heightened awareness of deep love and the heartbreak when a loved one has died. There is respect for the living and the dead.
I have witnessed this love and respect, or leveling, on many occasions, in ICU waiting room. Those waiting would form an invisible bond with the strangers in the room—take phone messages, purchase cups of coffee, hold blankets, do whatever to bring measure of comfort to others.
Several years ago, I participated in a circle of worship at a cemetery with people of Jewish, Christian and Muslim faith. It had been one year, since my friends had experienced the death of their only child. Long-standing friends of theirs flew in for the service from all parts of the world and recited prayers in Farsi. Passages from the New Testament were read. Small envelopes were distributed by their Jewish friends and we released a kaleidoscope of butterflies. We, people of different faiths, were there because we had and continue to love Nina—our lives were enriched by hers nine years of life.
If we know someone who is grieving, whether it is a recent loss, or something more distant, what are some ways to be a supportive friend?
Friends show up in these times. Friends are comfortable in the silence of grief. Friends are not afraid of tears. Friends refrain from platitudes. Friends refrain from talking about their prior losses. Friends listen. Friends take the time to write notes. Friends recall meaningful stories about the loved one. Friends continue, years later, to speak the name of the loved one, ask questions about them, and share times when they think about the loved one.
How can a person get involved with Faith & Grief, either as a volunteer or as a participant?
A person can learn ways to volunteer and/or participate by going to the website www.faithandgrief.org . During this Covid-19 pandemic, participation is via online support groups and 6-week workshops. We also welcome written personal stories of how individuals experience the intersection of their faith and grief, along with a picture of their loved one for our monthly e-news.
Volunteers are critical to Faith & Grief in providing more persons opportunities of comfort and hope after the death of their loved one(s). Volunteers serve as megaphones for this ministry since awareness of F&G is primarily word of mouth. When we return (an unknown time) to in-person monthly gatherings, volunteers can be trained to serve on leadership teams.
Each December, The Faith & Grief Memorial Arch is in Klyde Warren Park. This year will be the 5th annual Memorial Arch. Winter months and especially holidays are difficult times for those processing raw and lingering grief. The Memorial Arch provides an opportunity to write the name of loved one(s) on ribbons and tie the ribbons to the 16’ arch. Volunteers invite KWP visitors to write the names (there is no cost), listen to their stories, and take pictures of them holding their ribbon. Last year there were over 1800 visitors at the arch. We need 8-10 volunteers each day to serve 2-3 hours for this event.
The Faith & Grief Ministries board of directors is enriched with volunteers serving in advisory roles for development and marketing. Many who believe in the Faith & Grief Ministries mission to provide opportunities of comfort and hope to those who have experienced the death of a loved one and do not have the time to volunteer, give tangible gifts to partner with us in guiding persons to reconcile their grief in healthy and meaningful ways.
If you or someone you know is experiencing a mental health crisis or suicidal thoughts, please dial 1-800-273-8255 for the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline. For help finding a mental health resource, call the Here for Texas Mental Health Navigation Line at 972-525-8181.