Sumter Pastor Clay Smith: Grief from the inside


The pain of losing someone you love doesn't stop when you leave the cemetery. In many ways it is just beginning.

It has been three weeks since my brother passed, and I am still kicking over rocks, finding feelings I did not know I had. What makes this strange, I suppose, is I have walked with hundreds of families as they grieve. It is the occupational hazard of being a pastor. I have been the one giving advice, direction and guidance.

I am reminded every grief is different. It hurt when my stepfather died, but he had cancer, and it was time. It hurt when my mother died, but she had suffered from Alzheimer's Disease for 17 years. When she passed, I was relieved that she woke up in Jesus' presence in her right mind.

When my sister passed away last year, the grief was unfamiliar. In some ways you prepare all your life for your parents to pass away, but I was not ready for my sister to pass. In my mind I had a vision of all my siblings growing older together, way up into our 80s. I still miss Clemie Jo because I want to call her and tell her the latest brilliant thing my grandson has done.

When Steve died, I lost my best friend. He was older than me by seven years, so he could prepare for what lay ahead. He gave me early warnings about joint pain and bladder shrinkage. Brothers can talk in "guy code" using a few pithy phrases to convey vivid images.

Losing your siblings is like peeling a banana. Pieces of your life fall aside and never come back. That hurts. When people are dying, I often counsel families to tell their loved ones everything, because the curtain is drawing to a close. What I forgot is no matter how many times you tell someone you love them, you always long to tell them of your love one more time.

I have been on the receiving end of people's concern. The handwritten notes in cards mean a lot. People took the time to express care and be vulnerable. Everybody says, "If I can do anything for you, let me know." I have decided, if I can remember, never to say that again. Instead of telling people "All you have to do is ask," I will tell people what I will do. I will pray for you for the next two weeks. I will cut your grass. I will take care of that detail. True care moves into the need, instead of waiting for the need to be expressed.

I have also decided, as much as possible, not to tell people I will pray for them but to actually pray with them. One of my cousins, who does not really fit the picture of a "praying guy," told me he put me on his prayer list. That moved me. The people I work with asked me to sit in a chair, then put their hands on me, and prayed for me. That brought me to the point of tears. Prayer, not intention of prayer, has healing power.

I am going to remember that every family who grieves has a ton of decisions to make and lots of details to chase. As soon as my brother passed, the Hospice nurse wanted to know what funeral home to call. There was a service to arrange, pictures to sort through and bulletins to be printed. We had to decide on love offering amounts for those speaking and singing. Then there is the sorting of the personal effects. That will take a long time. My brother had tools, guns, binoculars and more. It is a reminder to me to ask, "After I am gone, will anyone want this?"

Most of all, inside of grief I am reminded that every person who grieves needs something unique from God. The promise of Psalm 23 is that God will be with us through the valley of the shadow of death. Right now, I need God to give me rest, strength and wisdom, in that order. Part of him being with me is telling me to stop, drop and sleep.

I think about other members of my family. They might need reassurance, that God has them, that they are not alone. Some members of my family need to ask God to take charge of their lives. Still others need God to guide them in major relationship and career decisions. The world does not stop when we lose someone, and God still knows our best next step.

Years ago, my cousin Dennis died in a tragic accident. His dad, my cousin Tiny, was a preacher. I remember what he said to me after Dennis' death: "It is a lie that time heals all wounds. Time simply helps you adjust to a different saddle."

No matter what saddle falls on our backs, we do not carry it alone. Our God walks with us, if we let him. His rod and his staff, they comfort us.

The Rev. Dr. Clay Smith is the lead pastor of Alice Drive Baptist Church in Sumter. Email him at