When the Crisis of Terminal Illness Visits Your Group

I remember it well. My wife and I were viewing a movie at our local cinema when she received a phone call from one of the pastors on our church staff about a family in our Bible study group. The phone call turned out to be about a couple who were founding members of our Bible study group several years prior. They were faithful attenders, supportive members of the church and our group, great parents to their daughter, and they both loved Jesus. Their adopted daughter was bright, energetic, smart, and she loved her daddy. When my wife stepped out of the theater to take the phone call, the pastor’s first words were, “The husband just died.” I remember how my wife came back into the theater, grabbed her purse, and whispered through tears, “We’ve got to leave. Now.” This man’s death was the end of his multi-year struggle with Lou Gehrig’s disease.

There are numerous crises that can affect groups. Divorce or abandonment is one. A sharp disagreement between two or more group members is another. A person or couple can have a grievance with church over a variety of issues. But the crisis of a terminal illness and the death of a group member is one that tops this list – a crisis that most groups are not prepared for.

For our group, my friend’s death came suddenly and unexpectedly, even though we’d known for years that his battle with Lou Gehrig ’s disease, if not healed miraculously by God, would end with his death. For years we watched this terminal illness slowly attack his body. He once told me that he used to lift weights, run, and prided himself on keeping his body in great shape. He had energy, stamina, and felt invincible. Now wheelchair bound, he could not perform the simplest of household duties. He and his wife purchased a special recliner that made it easier for him to be lifted up so he could stand, and his mobility was aided by a new electric wheelchair.  On several occasions our Bible study group spent Saturday mornings at their house, trimming bushes, adding mulch to flowerbeds, and doing general cleaning tasks. It was our joy to serve this wonderful family.

Dealing with the Challenges and Issues Surrounding Terminal Illness

As a Bible study group comes face-to-face with a group member who has been diagnosed with a terminal illness, you’ll find that some group members may be unfamiliar with anything like this – and what to do. If your group finds itself with an opportunity to serve a person with a terminal illness, and minister to that person’s family, keep these things in mind:

  1. Your presence is a ministry. Coach your group members that it’s O.K. if they don’t feel like they have words of wisdom, peace, or comfort to deliver to the terminally ill individual. The story of Job reminds us how important and comforting our presence can be. Scripture says, 11 Now when Job’s three friends—Eliphaz the Temanite, Bildad the Shuhite, and Zophar the Naamathite—heard about all this adversity that had happened to him, each of them came from his home. They met together to go and sympathize with him and comfort him. 12 When they looked from a distance, they could barely recognize him. They wept aloud, and each man tore his robe and threw dust into the air and on his head. 13 Then they sat on the ground with him seven days and nights,but no one spoke a word to him because they saw that his suffering was very intense.” (Job 2:11-13, CSB).
  2. Don’t tell the person “I understand.” Every person’s experience is different, and even if you have had a disease and are in remission, you won’t be able to say “I understand” with absolute integrity.
  3. Press into the person’s life, don’t pull away. Sometimes if we are uncomfortable with a person’s illness, we’ll tend to pull away and not minister to them. There is no reason to do that. This is the time in life they need you the most.
  4. Do say, “I want to understand what you’re going through.” This opens the door to a conversation that could reveal what the person is thinking, feeling, and experiencing. It puts you in the position of listener, not a guru who has all the answers.
  5. Don’t forget to support the spouse. It’s easy to focus on the person who is sick, but don’t forget about the spouse. That person will need just as much love and support as the terminally ill one.
  6. Do say, “I care about you and I’m sorry you’re hurting.” Empathize with your friend and avoid saying “helpful” phrases like, “It’s going to be alright.”
  7. Allow your group moments to pray and process what they are experiencing emotionally. In times when the terminally ill person is not around, take some time and help your group talk about their own sadness, anger, fear, or frustration with the condition of your terminally ill group member. Remember that times like this brings their mortality closer than ever.

My friend’s wife asked me to preach her husband’s funeral service, which I was glad to do. It was a special privilege to speak about this godly man whom God had called into ministry years ago. It was easy to speak about my friend’s love for God, his heart for evangelism, his faithfulness as a church staff leader, his support as a church member and group member, and his love for his wife and daughter. Randall was the real deal. Salt of the earth. He’d give you the shirt off his back. That kind of guy. Today, his wife and daughter have moved on the best they can, and a level of healing has taken place. Facebook posts show how much they miss their husband and father. During the dark days of this terminal illness, my group and I learned more about serving a friend and family than we could have ever learned by reading a book or an online article. Don’t shy away from situations like this, but embrace them as opportunities to not only learn, but to show the love of Christ in a tangible way.

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