(ym360 Note: It's not easy to talk about death and grief. Maybe that's why there aren't a lot of people writing about how, as a youth worker, you should approach it. The heart of youthministry360 is equipping and serving youth workers. And that means we deal with the tough stuff. If this isn't where you are right now, file it away for later. If you're dealing with some of this and have questions we might be able to help with, drop us an email at email@example.com.)
One of the hardest things you may be forced to deal with in your youth ministry is death and grief. Whether it's the loss of a teenager in your group, a teenager from your community, or the death of one of your student's loved ones, it's important to know your role when it comes to helping teenagers deal with their grief. Here's a few helpful suggestions to help you navigate this tough time:
1. Start With What You're NOT--You're not a therapist, or a doctor, or a parent. You are what you have always been to the teenagers in your group: you're their minister. Your role is to build upon the relationship you have in place. Your students need you in this role. Don't try and be something you're not.
2. Know What the Bible Says About Grief--This builds on number one. Part of your unique role as a youth worker is helping teenagers understand what the Bible says about death and grief. This is something you may want to study now and tuck away some notes for future use. You'll want them ready when you need them. Here's a start:
- The Encouragement of Believers in Death--1 Thessalonians 4:13-18
- Seek God in Times of Grief--Psalm 9:9
- Not Willingly Brought On by God--Lamentations 3:33
- No Sorrow in Heaven--Revelation 21:4
3. Provide a Place for Peer Support to Take Place--Support doesn't mean therapy. (See Tip 1) It means coming together and supporting students in their time of grief. In the initial days after a death (especially the death of a student), it's important to give students the opportunity to come together and talk. It's a time where both teens and youth workers can describe their experiences surrounding the death, how they heard about the death, their relationship with the deceased, etc. Not only does this give a chance to answer questions (if that's possible) but it also reiterates the realities of what has happened in their lives.
4. Be Comfortable With Students Expressing Their Emotions--Allowing teenagers to openly express their emotions is the healthiest way to offer support. If it's an individual or your group that is grieving, don't rush try and rush through the grief process or try to convince anyone that somehow their grief connects to the amount of faith they have. Let people express themselves, knowing that individuals process grief differently.
5. Help Students Remember--If the death affected your whole group, consider creating a memory wall/mural (i.e., having things like butcher paper/markers/magazines/glue and asking teens/workers to cut out and draw images that capture who that person was in their life) as a way to honor the person's life. If it is an individual affected, see about how you can help him or her do the same thing on a more personal level.
6. Create Rituals To Honor The Deceased--Creating meaningful rituals to mark the loss can be very comforting. If your group has been affected by the death, your students can brainstorm ideas if this is something that would be helpful for them, like celebrating the student's birthday together each year. If it's a student who has lost a family member, your group may take meals once a month to the student's family.
7. Know When To Get Help--Look out for unhealthy expressions of grief and when you see them, if possible, try and help facilitate the intervention of some professional help. Of course, if a teen voices behaviors or thoughts that are unhealthy to the point of concern, immediately contact your lead pastor and the student's parents. Following these tips is just a start. Grief is a complex issue, especially when teenagers are involved. But through your love and understanding, you can play a major role in the healing process.
- Have you ever had to deal with the loss of a student? What were some of the struggles you faced dealing with it as a youth worker?