Why We Must Encourage Our Students to Mourn

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In the aftermath of tragedies like the recent shooting in Sutherland Springs, the national response in the world of social media is fairly predictable. In the hours immediately following the news of lives lost, the nation joins together to mourn. Hashtags are created, thoughts and prayers are offered, and demands for change are made.

Shortly after those initial acts of mourning commence, however, it doesn’t take long before the implicated message drastically changes: we move on. Certainly no one tends to use those exact words. But in the sudden drop off of all tragedy-related discussion, this is the communicated message to those still mourning, and to our young students who are certainly still affected and confused.

The brief period allowed for mourning is, no doubt, the result of a variety of factors. We live in the age of the 24-hour news cycle, in which a constant stream of new stories breaks every hour. In that cycle, it is inevitable that no story can keep the attention of the public for very long. In America, mass-shootings and terror have become commonplace. We are numb and feel helpless to stop them. Additionally, tragedies are uncomfortable to dwell on as they force us to think on our own mortality and the wickedness of man. These facts are, obviously, unpleasant for many to consider and for these reasons it is somewhat understandable when the public chooses to move on.

Sadly, however, the same pattern can be communicated within our churches.

Like the world around us, we are generally quick to speak of the pain of death in light of these awful events. We mention them in our prayers and reference them in a lesson. But, like the world around us, we are often quick to leave those tragedies behind as we exchange our moment of mourning for a forced smile and an insistence that we are still okay. At times, this tendency is simply the result of our desire to avoid that which is uncomfortable. At other times, it is caused by our desire to jump to the theological conclusions of these events, so as to help our students immediately see the hope that is in Christ. While our motives might sound biblical, however, our tendency to bypass the act of mourning is far from effective ministry.
Our inability to mourn properly in the Church unintentionally communicates a lack of empathy over loss and an unwillingness to patiently mourn alongside those who are still hurting. Without realizing it, this only furthers the unbiblical model of mourning presented to our students through social media and sets up an inevitably difficult situation when a student faces a tragedy that hits closer to home. When that time comes, this common model will leave them feeling overwhelmed by their sense of loss, ashamed of their inability to reclaim their joy in Christ, and hesitant to seek comfort from their peers or youth pastor, assuming that they too will have already moved on.

As we seek to minister to our students through mourning, we must consider passages such as Ecclesiastes 3:4 where we read, there “is a time a time to weep and a time to laugh, a time to mourn and a time to dance.”

Although this text does not prescribe a set number of hours that we ought to mourn any given tragedy, it is probably safe to assume that the appropriate time extends beyond today’s typical news coverage. As uncomfortable as it might make some students and you feel, we must continue to include words of lament into our weekly prayers before our students. We must continue to bring it up in discussion. We must ensure that our students understand that we are, in fact, troubled by these events in the news and that we take the turmoil of others seriously. We must communicate to them an understanding of mourning that goes beyond the approach of the world around them.

It is okay, even appropriate, for them to be sad and confused about a tragedy that doesn’t touch them personally.

Speaking to that call, Paul tells his readers in I Thessalonians 4:13 to not “grieve as others do who have no hope.” While this certainly speaks to the hope we are able to speak in Christ, this also speaks to a call today to not fall into the shortened, almost obligatory mourning routines of Facebook, Instagram, or Twitter.

For the sake of those who still mourn, let us not allow ourselves to be carried away by the tide of breaking news that is constantly rolling in. Let us hold to this uncomfortable ground and not be too quick to forcibly wipe away the tears of grief. Yes, we must ultimately speak of the hope we have in Christ. But in order for that hope to take on its full meaning, we must first properly mourn. Let us mourn openly both on the behalf of those still hurting, as well as for our students who will someday face their own tragedy. Let us mourn today in such a way that communicates to our students that when their day of suffering comes, and when friends and social media have moved on, we will be there to mourn alongside them as long as we are needed.

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