Angie Clayton helps people peer through the tunnel of grief

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Angie Clayton has been a Midwesterner all her life, and currently lives in a suburb of Kansas City.

She worked briefly as a certified public accountant, and then opted to use her degree in rather unconventional ways, first by working with her husband in a Midas franchise they owned for four years. 

In 2000, Angie’s heart turned toward ministry, and eventually women’s ministry in particular. 

“In 2009, I went to work for a big church. It was invigorating because we saw lives changed through conferences, Bible studies and one-on-one counseling,” she explained.

Sidelined by illness

After Angie turned 50, her life went in a new direction, although it was not one she would have chosen. She started having a lot of migraine headaches and even seizures at times. She also underwent three joint replacement surgeries. 

“I was just not well. Ultimately, I left my job to focus on my health,” Angie explained. “Nobody likes to do that because it’s not a fun thing to do. A major illness can leave people feeling very discouraged and very disheartened. I spent a lot of time asking God where my life was going.”

In 2019, Angie was finally diagnosed with a rather rare autoimmune disorder. Although there was relief in having a diagnosis, the pain and uncertainty continued. 

“I was able to move forward, but I had to do it wisely by respecting my body and the boundaries it set,” she explained. “My goals today are much different than they might have been had I not become so sick.

“I won’t say the health issues got better because they most likely never will,” said Angie. “But, over time, they have faded into the background because of all the opportunities God has given me. I’ll admit I don’t like it at times, but I am glad for it at the same time.”

Realigning her purpose

Sometimes God slows people down in order to get them to reprioritize not only what they consider to be valuable, but also to get them to align with God’s overall purpose. 

“That was 100% true for me. I was very much a perfectionist for most of my life. But, now I am a recovering perfectionist,” she explained. “I have a sign on my bulletin board that says ‘Progress over perfection.’ I really had to embrace that.

“There is only one perfect, true God. When I try to be perfect, then I’m trying to be like him and that’s not good,” she added. “Perfectionism is not my jam anymore.”

Grief support

Over the years, the focus of Angie’s ministry has changed from helping women strengthen their faith, to helping them in their grief.

“I was called in to that completely by accident. It wasn’t my design, but God had already planned it out from the beginning of time,” said Angie. 

“As I was working my way through all this health stuff, over the course of five years I was in regular contact with a woman who lost two children to suicide,” she explained. “Before her son died, we were friendly acquaintances who didn’t know each other very well. When he died, I remember sending her a message that I was on my way to her house. 

“I got into my car and started driving over there,” she added. “The entire drive, I kept asking God what was I doing, and what could I possibly say or do to be of help in any way.

“When I arrived at her house, I just went into what I call firefighter mode,” said Angie. “She had eight children, so I started arranging meals, getting kids to various activities, and helping select funeral clothes. I did what I could to keep the household running.”

The world and church needs people who serve in the role of firefighters. They put out one fire and go back home to wait for the next one to start. That’s what Angie did. 

“When the woman’s daughter died, I began to build a friendship with her,” said Angie. 

“The minute I found out about her daughter’s death, I went over to my friend’s house and just crawled in bed with her,” she explained. “I laid there, held her close and just cried with her. I began a journey with her that continues today. 

“Our relationship has turned into a very deep and close friendship,” she added. “Today, it is a reciprocal friendship. In the beginning, her needs and her grief were so deep that all I could do was serve her.

“Since then, the Lord has taught me a lot about what is helpful and what is not helpful when people are experiencing periods of traumatic grief,” said Angie. “He continues to bring me more grieving people, one at a time, for love and support.”

A ministry of presence

Many times people don’t know what to say to others who are grieving a loss. As a result, they don’t say anything at all or avoid contact with a grieving person. Not only is it uncomfortable to be around grieving people, but many times friends and family are afraid of compounding the grief. But, that is not at all the case, Angie explained. 

“I like to call it a ministry of presence because that’s what people need more than anything else when they are grieving,” she explained. “A ministry of presence just means coming alongside someone and walking through life together until they don’t need the support anymore. 

“Sometimes people need me for a little while, and other times they need me for months or even forever, like the grieving mother,” said Angie. “It’s hard to be present, but it’s so good.”

Everyone will encounter grief at some point in their lives. A parent or close friend will die, or an accident, fire or natural disaster will suddenly turn their lives upside down. 

Even regret can be a form of grief as well because something someone woulda, shoulda, coulda done meant their lives would have turned out much differently had they gone in that direction. Regardless of the reason, everyone will eventually need someone at their side as they walk through the grieving process. 

“A ministry of presence requires an investment of time to get to know the other person in order to understand their true needs at that time,” said Angie. “It’s not true across the board, but women generally want someone to sit there and cry with them. Men, on the other hand, would be grateful to have someone put gas in their car.

“People are different in their reaction to grieving people,” she added. “Over and over, I’ve seen grieving people who expect friends/family to stay, but those folks don’t always do so. On the other hand, there are people you’d never expect in a million years to stay close, but they actually do.

“My goal is to give supportive people a comfort level to realize it’s okay to just sit with their loved ones and do nothing, if that’s all they need at that moment,” said Angie.

People want to talk

People who have just lost a spouse, child or close friend really do want to talk about that person. But, many times, people are afraid to even say the person’s name for fear of opening an emotional wound.

“I tell people all the time to say their loved one’s name. Grieving people want to hear their name and talk about that person,” said Angie. “They aren’t going to have any more memories with that person. If you have a story they haven’t heard before, that is an incredible gift to them. So don’t be afraid to share those memories.”

Things to avoid in grief

Angie said it’s important for supporters to be careful with their words when talking to someone who is grieving. 

“For people of faith, the natural tendency is to share a scripture verse with someone who is grieving in hopes it will make them feel better,” she explained. “But, sometimes it’s not helpful. There are certain verses and passages that can actually be painful to hear when grieving.

“What happens then is that scripture works to create distance between you and a grieving person,” she added. “You do not want to push them away when they need you the most.”

For example, people sometimes recite Philippians 4:13, which says, “I can do all things through him who gives me strength.” 

“That is absolutely true, but for people who have lost a spouse or child, that passage isn’t helpful at the height of their grief,” said Angie. “Later, they will get to a point where that passage will be tremendously helpful.

“The worst example I ever saw was a sympathy card sent after the loss of a child,” she added. “The sender included a photo of their own new grandchild with a note saying, ‘The Lord gives and the Lord takes away.’  It was not helpful, at all.

“So, if you have not walked in their shoes, be careful how you sympathize with someone,” said Angie. “You can’t really say to a parent, ‘I know how you feel because my cat just died.’ Yes, losing a pet is painful, but the comparison to a child diminishes the grieving process for people who experienced the loss.”

Serve people during their grief

Many of us sincerely want to help, so we tell grieving people, “If you need anything, just give me a call.” The truth is, those people aren’t likely to call.

“They are grieving. They are broken and shattered. They don’t know what they need or want,” said Angie. “We are well-meaning, and we really do mean it when we extend the offer, but it’s very unlikely that a grieving person will ever act on it.

“However, by extending the offer, we tell ourselves that we’re released from our obligation and maybe we are,” she added. “It would be more helpful to say, ‘I’m going to bring you dinner this week. Would Tuesday or Wednesday be better?’ Or you tell them, ‘I know your kids have practice this week and I want to take them. What time is practice and where do they go?’

“Grieving people can still make decisions about those small things. But, you can’t just give them a blanket ‘if you need anything, call me’ offer. It’s too much for them,” Angie explained.

What happens if you get it wrong when you’re trying to help? You still help anyway. 

“You can try to be wise and be careful, but, at the same time, understand you may still get it wrong,” said Angie. “I still get it wrong all the time. But, there is grace and forgiveness when that happens. You can’t stop making those offers. Just apologize and keep going.”

Angie said she was very uncomfortable when she first started her ministry of presence. Yet, she knew God’s hand was in it.

“I felt so ill equipped and so inadequate,” she said. “Every other job I have had, I had the skills needed to perform the job before I started. I had no skills to help people with their grief. I had to depend completely upon the Lord to enter into the situation and stay with these people.”

Pre-grieving is hard, too

Grief doesn’t necessarily mean helping people contend with death. People can grieve for a variety of reasons. 

“As we get older, we can lose our jobs or retire from a job that has been our main source of fulfillment for most of our lives,” said Angie. “People can experience miscarriages, a divorce or even dementia. Any kind of loss can result in grief. One type of grief isn’t easier than another. Grief is grief. Don’t discount someone’s grief.”

Angie’s father was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s Disease in 2023.

“He’s got a long way to go before it affects him too deeply. But, there are a lot of stunning things that happen and really set you back on your heels,” she explained. “It doesn’t involve a death yet, but it is going to. It’s really sort of pre-grieving.

“Pre-grief is a real thing,” she added. “Honestly, it’s as hard as grieving, but it’s also helpful down the road because you’ve already come to terms with some things. You will still have the shock and pain when the person eventually passes away. But, often, you’ve dealt with some of the loss ahead of time and that can be very helpful.  

Keeping boundaries

One of the lessons Angie learned was to keep good boundaries when engaging with other people. 

“This type of ministry can be very intense because you are entering the lives of people who are grieving deeply,” she explained. “You need to find a balance between caring for them well, but not going into their pain so deeply that it affects your heart and soul.

“That’s only learned through trial and error. If you find yourself in a little too deep, then don’t be afraid to back off a bit,” she added. “If you don’t take care of yourself, you can’t take care of others by providing support for them.”

Living with regret

Angie often blogs about living with regret, which is another form of grieving for some people.

“It’s really important to understand the difference between regret, guilt and shame,” she explained. “Regret is saying, ‘If I could do that over again, I’d do it differently.’ When I look back at my parenting, for example, there is some stuff I’d do differently.

“Guilt says you did bad things. It would make you look back and say, ‘I probably destroyed someone forever with that comment or action,'” Angie said. “The funny thing is, many times the other person doesn’t remember it at all. Shame, on the other hand, says, ‘I am bad.’

“Those distinctions might seem subtle, but they are important to understand. Regret is actually healthy. But, guilt is not and there is no way shame would ever come from the Lord,” she explained. 

Many times people get so mired in the pain of past mistakes that they get paralyzed,” said Angie. “Being able to move forward into the marvelous future God has planned for us can’t happen if we stay stuck in shame or guilt about things that happened in the past.

“Perhaps, repentance is needed and apologies need to be made, but you can do those things outside of guilt and shame,” she added. “Regret can sometimes lead to repentance and reconciliation, but it can also move us forward. Guilt and shame keep people stuck in the past, and that’s a really rotten place to be.”

For Christians, the Holy Spirit often convicts them that something could have been handled a different way, or your life should be going in a certain direction. But, guilt and shame are arrows thrown by the enemy and weapons used to take people down.

Learning to discern the difference between conviction and condemnation takes practice. If you are left with hope, it’s generally conviction. If you feel hopeless and defeated, it’s almost always condemnation.

Romans 8:1 reminds us, ‘Therefore, there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus,'” Angie said. 

When it comes to regret, one of Angie’s favorite Bible verses is found in Isaiah 43:18-19, which says, “Forget the former things; do not dwell on the past. See, I am doing a new thing! Now it springs up; do you not perceive it? I am making a way in the wilderness.”

“It doesn’t matter what came before; there are good things coming ahead,” said Angie. “I do believe God can make pathways through a wilderness that is so crowded and dark that I can’t see a way out. He can create rivers when I am dying of thirst because I have experienced that and still do.”

One thing is for certain, she added, God doesn’t want people dwelling on regret, guilt or shame. 

“It wastes a ton of energy when we are focused on the past,” said Angie. “The other energy waster is projecting things into the future.

“The reality is those things may or may not happen,” she explained. “I was really good at projecting the worst-case scenarios because I wanted to be ready with a plan no matter what happened.

“All that did was leave me sitting in anxiety. I had to come to terms with the fact my worrying today is not going to change a thing when, or if, it ever happens,” she added. “I only waste today. Living in the past or projecting into the future keeps us focused somewhere other than today, and today is all we have at the moment.”

Sharing hope and faith

Many times, grieving people feel hopeless in their current state. It’s important for Christians to share the hope they have with others, but it might not be appropriate to do so when non-believers are grieving. Many times, non-believers may blame God for causing or allowing the situation. 

“Sharing your faith with a grieving non-believer may just push people away,” said Angie. “Sometimes we push people away to make ourselves more comfortable.

“It is important for me to be very aware of my words, behavior and the attitude of my heart at that moment,” she explained. “I have to pay attention to my facial expressions because, sometimes, I have a hard time muting my face.

“If God opens a door for you to share your faith, for example, when someone asks you a specific question, then, of course, you’re going to walk through the door,” she said. “Otherwise, unless you know I love you and care for you, then you are not going to hear me or listen to anything related to the Lord. 

“It is my job to live out my life as a light in the best way I can, and for me that happens by getting into relationship with people,” Angie explained. “If that relationship is deep enough, at some point, then they’re ready to receive the gospel. Without a relationship, you really don’t have permission to speak about faith in a person’s life.”

Moving forward in retirement

Angie dreamed of writing for a long time, but got serious about it after she retired. 

“I had the idea as a little girl, and kept it on the back burner,” said Angie. “But, retirement is a time to resurrect those old dreams and wishes that were put into you for a reason. Life often does a good job destroying our dreams.

“We think we aren’t good enough, or not well enough equipped to do something,” she explained. “The truth is, if there was a dream inside you at some point, now is the time to do it. So, just do it.

“Everybody starts somewhere and you’re always going to be a beginner when you get started. It’s okay to not be good,” she added. “Being bad at something doesn’t make you a failure either because you can get better. Quitting is the only thing that makes you a failure.”

The key to a successful second half of life is to embrace whatever is happening in your life at the moment, said Angie. 

“God planned out every single day of our lives,” she added. “We shouldn’t be despondent when things aren’t going like you want them to go. The darkness of that emotion means you may miss out on whatever is next.

“You have to get a grip on those negative emotions before you’ll be able to see what God is unfolding before you. You need eyes to see and ears to hear his plan,” said Angie. “Then you need to be willing and obedient. The servant does not choose his task, the master does.

“We can have all kinds of good ideas and make all kinds of plans, but if we seek the Lord about those first, then things go in a way that there is no mistake God was involved,” she added.“There is much joy ahead in obedience and surrender to whatever it is.

“I’m not talking about getting rich, either. There are a lot of good things that come through character growth, too,” Angie explained. “There are relationships that form, ministries that start, books that get written and paintings that are created when you are in the bullseye of God’s will. If you’ve ever been at that point, then you know what it feels like and there is no better feeling in the world.” 

Peering into the Tunnel

Angie wrote a book to share the wisdom she has learned along the way. Titled “Peering into the Tunnel: An Outsider’s Look into Grief,” it describes things that are helpful and not-so-helpful when ministering to grieving people. 

“My hope in writing the book is that it would dispel the fear people have about engaging others in their grief, and give them confidence and encouragement to just do it,” said Angie. “Just be brave and go in. Honestly, it takes courage. But, it’s something that is possible for all of us.”

Angie’s book is a helpful guide to instruct people on the process of grief and how to help people who are in the middle of the grieving process. 

“My goal is to ensure people aren’t afraid to enter into grieving with someone they love,” she said. 

“Peering into the Tunnel” is a collection of short stories about people who have been grieving in different situations. The stories describe how they walked through the grief and what helped them the best.

It includes the story about the mother who lost two children to suicide. Another story describes women who lost their mothers when they were young and had nobody to help them grow up.

“Those are all precious relationships to me, and none of them would have happened if I didn’t overcome my fear and reach out just to be present with them during their grief,” said Angie. 

In 2 Corinthians 1:4, Paul reminds us that God comforts us in all our troubles, so that we can comfort others in any trouble with the comfort we received from God.

“When reading that verse, you really need to circle the word ‘any’ because it means you didn’t have to go through what others are experiencing in order to provide comfort to them,” said Angie. “God comforted me in my affliction and, because of that, I am equipped to comfort you in yours, whether I have experienced the same thing or not.”

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