A Basic Strategy for Pastoring to Kids in Tragedy: Four Tips
I remember the sense of paralysis I felt on my second week of youth ministry when a child’s father died. I had no idea what do. What was the first step I should take?
Now, I have worked in youth and family ministry for fourteen years, where I have sat ringside for many tragedies. As I recount in my book, Therefore, I Have Hope: 12 Truths That Comfort, Sustain, and Redeem, I also lost my oldest child, Cameron, back in 2013, so I have coped with my own tragedy. From these experiences, I wanted to offer four pastoral tips for how to respond in tragedy.
(1) Show up.
It may be scary. It may be awkward. Ask God for grace and power. Suck it up. Get over there. I say this without equivocation: show up.
In my second week on the job a family experienced a significant loss. My boss told me, “I know you hardly know them. Just go over to the house. Lean against the wall by yourself if you don’t recognize anyone and pray. Don’t worry about saying or doing anything. Just be present.” He reminded me that, as a Christian, I carried Christ in my heart. I was not going alone, I was bringing the presence of God in an embodied form.
Since then, this advice has never failed me; it has only paid massive dividends. People realize the difficulty it takes to enter into a tragic situation and they appreciate you making the effort. Very often the people who show up end up being the ones the sufferers trust most in the grief process.
Even if it’s a three-minute visit to drop off a letter, hug a neck, or to say, “I’m so sorry,” showing up makes all the difference in the world.
(2) Shut Up.
Everyone is so worried about what to say and what not to say. Ministers in particular feel a pressure to save the day with perfect words.
In the first days of a tragedy, there is nothing you can say that will make everything right. I have both witnessed and received a well-meaning pastor saying the wrong thing that hurt deeply.
In the initial days of a tragedy, I recommend keeping your words few with a sufferer. Saying things like, “I’m just so sorry,” or “I wish I had the perfect magic words to take away your pain,” are suitable. Saying, “I just don’t know what to say except ‘I’m sorry’” is totally fine, too. Alleviate yourself of the pressure to deliver the magic words.
(3) Lift Up.
Commit to praying for the sufferers. Actually do it. Let them know that you are doing it and ask for prayer requests. Prayer really does make a difference.
After my son died, I could feel the abundant prayers people interceded on our behalf. It encouraged me when a friend would text to say. “I just prayed for you” or, “I’m about to pray for you. Is there anything specific I can pray about?” Your prayers are every bit as powerful as your pastoral efforts.
(4) Show up again.
Here’s a key point that the vast majority of people do not realize. The tail of grief is very, very long. After my son died, I started to realize that the feelings of sadness and loss would continue in various forms for the rest of my life. Within three months I called up a student whose father had died four years earlier. I asked her what grief looked like for her at this point and what it was like to be looking at colleges without her dad’s guidance and presence.
Responding to tragedies of all kinds does not end in the first three-to-six months. It extends for years and years. Ninety-nine percent of people don’t realize that. You very much distinguish yourself as a pastor or friend when you show up months or years later and remember their grief. Sending flowers or a note to a family on the anniversary of a loved one’s death is one way to help. At major life transitions, celebrations, or challenges, you can ask if the moment has dredged up any sorrow from the past loss. (These moments always seem to reawaken the sadness.) Showing up again may be the most important aspect of pastoring to people in tragedy.
Finally, the key thing to remember in all of this is that the Comforter Himself goes with you into these situations. You are never alone. You are never without the resources, wisdom, and power of God. The Holy Spirit will guide and enable you to enter into these most challenging pastoral situations.