Helping Students Grieve A Loss

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In this world marred by sin, grief is a normative part of the human experience. As youth pastors, we should be prepared to help our students walk through it with the eyes of faith. Here are eight suggestions for helping students process grief.

1.) Resource parents.

Recently, a much loved youth leader from our high school team—also a dear friend to my husband and me—died unexpectedly. As our other adult leaders and I struggled to process reality and mourn the loss ourselves, I didn’t think we were quite ready to gather with students to help them do the same. We decided to provide some talking points for parents as a first step, since we believe they are their teenagers’ foremost disciple-makers.

I wasn’t thinking very clearly at the time, so a Rooted friend offered to draft something for me (a tremendous gift in the midst of my grief).* I sent these talking points to parents in an email, indicating that we would facilitate a time to process together in Sunday School a couple of days later.

  • “As you’ve begun to process this terrible news today, what memories of ____ stand out? What have you learned from ____ that you’re most thankful for?”
  • “It’s okay to feel really sad, confused, hurt, or even angry… and it’s okay not to know how to feel. How can we help you grieve in your own way?”(Validate students’ feelings and needs.)
  • Christians are people marked by hope. Read together through Jesus’ promises in John 14:1-3 and Revelation 21:1-4. Spend some time praying for one another, for ____’s family, and thanking the Lord for the many ways we have been blessed through ____’s life.

You can tailor these questions for your context and circumstances. The important thing is to be in touch with parents, to let them know you’re praying for them, and to reaffirm that their students need their presence and care.

2.) Be present and listen.

Pastoral ministry classes at the seminary level often focus on practicing “the theology of presence” in times of loss. The idea is that people generally don’t need a lot of sermonizing in the midst of their pain; they need the incarnational presence of pastors, friends, and fellow mourners. Jesus practiced this presence when his good friend Lazarus died (John 11). Arriving on the scene, he listened to Mary and Martha’s heartfelt concerns even as he shared the truth of the resurrection with them. John tells us that Jesus was “deeply moved in spirit and troubled” (John 11:33) by Mary’s tears.

My previous church was closely affected by the mass shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut. On the Monday after the tragedy, school hadn’t yet reopened for our Newtown Middle and High School students, so I invited the girls to meet at church for pizza. A group of ten or so students talked for two straight hours, processing the trauma they had experienced in lockdown at school and the deep sense of loss they felt as they grieved for neighbors and friends in town. While I certainly seized some opportunities to minister the hope of Jesus through words that day, I mostly listened. Being present with those young women in their pain set the tone for the months and years of conversations that would follow as they continued to grieve.

As your students process their grief, set aside time to be together. Let them direct how much they want to talk, and try to discipline yourself to listen. If they seem to tire of sharing at some point, doing something fun or lighthearted together can be a helpful release of tension in the midst of grief. Let them know that you’re available to talk again whenever they’re ready.

3.) Pray theologically rich prayers.

In praying with students during times of loss, we model where to go with our grief. We are not sufficient to handle the pain ourselves—we need Jesus to be our Burden-Bearer.

There is an added benefit to praying together in that it can help us articulate theological truth for students to hang onto without preaching at them. Sometimes I’m surprised by the things students remember me saying in the aftermath of Sandy Hook. When they reflect something I said to them in the course of that initial grieving, I often think, “I must have prayed that with them.”

As we speak to the Father in the presence of our students, we can acknowledge that when we do not have words, the Son and the Holy Spirit are interceding on our behalf. We can use the words of the psalmists to lament “How long, O Lord?” We can speak our deep conviction that Jesus is present with those who have suffered, and that he is holding them fast. There is a sweetness to praying words like these together, rather than only teaching them didactically. In doing so, we instruct our students how to pray in accordance with God’s character and Word.

4.) Let them see you grieve.

This most recent loss of our fellow youth worker has been more personal for me than others I’ve faced in pastoral ministry. It has felt more complicated to walk with students in their sadness. A couple of wise friends have spoken into this, encouraging me that students need to see their leaders grieve as part of their own spiritual development. As a result of their words, I’ve been emboldened not to stuff my emotions, but to express them more freely. I have been blown away by my high school students’ empathy and care in these moments. They have helped to carry my burdens in this time of loss, even as we grieve together.

We must take care not to process first or only with our students. Youth pastors should cultivate good friendships and seek counsel where they can process strong emotions. At the same time, we should recognize that we are modeling for students what healthy grieving looks like. We seek to show them “the God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our troubles, so that we can comfort those in any trouble with the comfort we ourselves receive from God” (2 Corinthians 1:4).

5.) Brainstorm tangible ways to remember.

A couple of days after our friend died last month, my husband Steve and I were invited on a short hike with some of the staff and board members from the local outdoor education ministry this amazing leader had founded. It was cathartic to be with others who loved our dear friend, and to spend time in creation together. As we walked in the woods, one of his staff instructed us to pick up rocks along the way. Once we reached the lookout at the end of the hike, we sang a song, prayed together, and assembled a little stone pile as a memorial to our friend.

Reflecting on this experience, my husband observed that our students also needed something tangible to help them remember. We had already provided some space for them to process emotions on a Sunday morning, but we knew that the first Tuesday night without this consistent leader at High School Youth Group would be painful. So Steve led them in a brainstorming exercise as a next step in grieving together. Using our hike as an example and referencing the biblical concept of an Ebenezer from 1 Samuel 7, he encouraged them to think of something physical we could place in our youth space or an activity we could do together to remember his legacy. Students suggested planting a tree, framing a photo and some of his spiritual one-liners in the youth room, and establishing an annual hike in his honor.

Sometimes we need a tangible reminder of a person’s legacy to help us move forward. Enlist students to think creatively about what would be fitting in your context, and then help them pull it off.

6.) Share how grief works.

When my previous church experienced several tragedies in a row, my counselor recommended I read Elizabeth Kübler-Ross and David Kessler’s’ influential book on grief.** It helped immensely in preparing me for some of the feelings my students and I experienced in the months that followed.  It helped immensely in preparing me for some of the feelings my students and I experienced in the months that followed. Obviously this is not the time to present a detailed lesson on psychology; however, you can subtly arm your students with some simple information that will help them not to feel alarmed by whatever feelings may arise. I often say things to students like, “Grief is funny. Just when you think you’re doing a little better, it can suddenly hit you all over again. Don’t be surprised if it comes in waves. Try to give yourself some space to process when this happens.”

Our adult leader team and I applied this approach when our senior pastor left our church unexpectedly. I told students: “You may find that at some point down the road you experience sadness or anger that is different than what you feel right now. If so, know that we want to be here to talk and pray with you—days, months, or even years from now.”

Sharing words like these helps students to anticipate some of what they might feel and it creates a safer environment for them to talk about their feelings.

7.) Allow everyone to process differently.

My first of four beloved grandparents died in my early twenties, and before I hopped on a plan home, a coworker shared some insight about grief (see point number six above). She told me that grief can be isolating because everyone experiences and processes differently—so much so that it can make you feel a bit distant from others mourning the same loss. This was helpful to me as I traveled home to be with family, and it’s been a key insight for pastoring others in the decade since. It was especially true in the grieving that followed the Sandy Hook shooting, since some students were directly affected and others were more distant from the tragedy. It took wisdom to know how often to talk about that event in the year that followed.

As you think about how different students in your ministry are doing following a loss, coach them in bearing one another’s burdens. Look for those who may be suffering silently as they continue to mourn after others appear to be moving on.

8.) Point them to Jesus. 

As we shepherd students in their grief, we can patiently remind them that they serve a God who is well acquainted with the burden of sadness they carry. After all, Jesus bore our griefs and carried our sorrows to the cross (Isaiah 53:4). He is our great Burden-Bearer (Psalm 68:19), and the One who promises to be present with us when our hearts are broken (Psalm 34:18). May these precious truths flow out of us as we comfort those in our care.

* Many thanks to Rooted writer and Steering Committee Emeritus for these talking points for parents!

**Elizabeth Kübler-Ross and David Kessler, On Grief and Grieving: Finding the Meaning of Grief Through the Five Stages of Loss (New York: Scribner, 2014).

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