Ministering To Students In A Time Of Grief
Death is a reality many in our congregations aren't prepared to face. Frequently, parents and students are ill equipped when death strikes. One of our roles as youth workers is to help families cope through these difficult experiences.
While some youth workers may leave this to a Senior Pastor or other staff member, we can play a key role in helping a family successfully grieve the loss of a loved one.
Here is a short list of tips I've found helpful. Please, keep in mind that every death is different and we must be sensitive to the circumstances. But, if the church isn't prepared to help students and their families walk through this journey, who is?
Be present for whatever the family will allow. Death is a unique crisis; death opens old wounds and slices new ones. Few other crises have the power to divide and destroy as quickly as the death of a loved one. Your presence can have any number of positive effects. For some families, death is a private event. Occasionally, I've been invited to attend funerals where only family was present. I've attended other funerals where they've had a public memorial service later. The most important thing is to be present.
Prepare For The Emotional Roller Coaster
With teenagers, death is an emotional roller coaster. As you know, students often experience major mood swings as a bi-product of their natural development: their highs are super high, and their lows are supper low. When you add the death of a parent, grandparent, or friend, these swings can be even more dramatic. Be prepared to help them work through the ups and downs they are sure to experience.
After the funeral, be sure to follow up with the students. I find it helpful to send a card six months or a year after the death. These cards help to remind the student and their family that you're available to talk. Students and their families will receive a lot of attention surrounding a tragedy, but this attention will usually fade. This can sometimes leave people feeling lonely and isolated. Your presence, weeks or months after the loss, can be a great help.
Death rarely strikes on a schedule. It's important to be available while still maintaining appropriate boundaries. This includes both emotional and physical boundaries. Death can drag out issues from our own emotional closets. The best time to work through our personal baggage is before a crisis. If we're in a good place mentally and spiritually, we'll be more emotionally available to help others in times of need.
Be Sensitive To The Circumstances
It's very important to be sensitive to the circumstances of any death, though you probably don't need to know all the details of what happened. If the family would like to share with you, allow it to happen organically. Again, this will usually come as a result of being present and available.
Allow Space For Questions
Students maybe silently struggling with questions and we need to allow space and time for them to ask the questions they have. Remember, it's OK to say you don't know the answer. If you don't know, let the student be a part of finding out some possible answers with you. It may create more space for more questions.
Steer Clear Of Making Pronouncements
I have an ax to grind about this. In my opinion, funerals aren't the time to make theological pronouncements of where you believe a person "is." I once heard a pastor comment that he was unsure if a 6-week-old baby who had died was with God. I've heard pastors give "turn or burn" messages at funerals. But, I've also heard pastors comfort grieving families. Which is really about all we can do. We can certainly share the hope of Christ without using someone's death as a platform. Maybe the most important thing we can consider is what God's Word says to us:
13 Brothers and sisters, we do not want you to be uninformed about those who sleep in death, so that you do not grieve like the rest of mankind, who have no hope. 14 For we believe that Jesus died and rose again, and so we believe that God will bring with Jesus those who have fallen asleep in him.-- 1 Thessalonians 4:13-14
What concepts have been helpful to you as you have dealt with death and loss in your ministry?