Let me begin by saying that I am by no means an expert on grief. I’m not a psychologist, I don’t have a degree in counseling, and I have made plenty of mistakes! I muddle my way through the tough times in ministry by the grace of God. Following are a few stories of loved ones I have met along the way, and examples of how God worked in the midst of sadness.
Sophie was a ray of light. Her smile could fill a room and her faith in the Lord was evident to all who met her. Literally. This little girl was not ashamed of the gospel of Jesus Christ. She offered hope and encouragement not only to her peers, but to people four times her age. I’ve heard many stories of phone calls Sophie made, or gifts she crafted for people in our congregation struggling with sadness or disease. During the five years Sophie spent battling a brain tumor, she continued to make us laugh as she came up with ridiculous names for her tumor and her stint, and as she made self-deprecating jokes about her eyes, whose movement she eventually lost control of. Sophie was truly a gift from God. And she left us too early. She was just weeks away from her confirmation day and her junior high school graduation. Sophie’s eighth grade classmates, and our entire church family, felt the great impact of her loss.
I met Ella while I was directing children’s ministry at a homeless shelter. She moved in on a Halloween night. As I introduced myself to this blonde-headed 11 year old, I assumed by the fear in her eyes that she was at the shelter for the first time. I read her wrong. Her fears had less to do with the unknowns of living in a shelter, and more with the devastation of cycling through the system for the third time, not knowing this time how long she would have to stay. She was embarrassed for her mother who couldn’t seem to take control of her drug addiction. She was frustrated and confused that she often found herself needing to care for a mother who couldn’t care for her. And she was scared that when a city cab dropped her off at school (as they do for all of the kids who live at the shelter) her friends might find out where she was living. Ella grieved a life which she and her mother had briefly tasted, but one they could not seem to maintain.
“Anna, is that you?” I asked the hysterical voice on the other end of the phone. “It’s me,” she said in between sobs. “Can we talk?” Anna’s was a different kind of grief altogether. At the vulnerable age of 14, she had given away something she instantly realized she would never get back. And when her boyfriend disappeared, breaking promises he’d made about “forever,” Anna’s world turned very dark. Over coffee, she told me of the shame that taunted her and wondered aloud whether relief from such sadness might ever come.
Have you ever found yourself faced with a situation like those above and puzzled about how you could help? As youth workers, we may only see our students once or twice a week. That can be frustrating if we are putting too much pressure on ourselves to “fix” our students’ problems or heal their hurts. I want to encourage you that even in a limited amount of time, you can provide your students with healthy and tangible outlets for dealing with grief.
When Sophie passed away, our plans for confirmation changed. Students had been working all year on projects which required them to live out their faith in tangible ways. Though Sophie died only weeks before our presentation night, many students changed the course of their projects to honor her. One student invited friends over to make bouquets of tissue paper flowers tied up with favorite Bible verses (Sophie’s specialty) and then had her mom drive her out to Stanford hospital to give them to young chemo patients in Sophie’s memory. On the actual confirmation day, we read Sophie’s name and confirmation verse and we paused to remember the faith our Lord worked in her heart and the impact that faith made on us. When Sunday school and youth group activities came around, we scrapped our plans and talked about Sophie. We shared memories of our friend, cried together, and grappled with the tough questions that inevitably arise when death passes over.
Ella’s grief manifested itself in ways which were often either self destructive or distracting to other students. She required extra grace from me, as tough days often resulted in outbursts of an explosive nature. Sometimes Ella was just crying out for some one-on-one attention. She needed to know that I saw her and that I was sympathetic to her situation. There were times when she needed to be separated from the group, not because she was in trouble, but because she needed to scream or cry out. She needed a safe place where she could release some frustration by slamming a ball against a wall, squeezing some clay, or journaling. On days when I was catching up on paperwork, I would invite her to help, or to just sit with me in the safety of my office.
In addition to grieving a loss, Anna was also in great need of forgiveness. She needed to know that she could have a fresh start. So, after our conversation in the coffeehouse, we hopped in the car and drove to our local Christian bookstore. We stood in front of the jewelry display for a long time before she finally chose a ring, one that she wears to this day, reminding her that God has purified her of all sins and reminding her of the joy that awaits her someday in a committed marriage relationship.
I have learned over the years that there is no magic formula for helping students through sadness. The ways people express grief are as unique as the reasons why they grieve. If there is one piece of advice that I could give you that would be worth following, it would be to trust your instincts. If you know your students well, you probably have a pretty good idea of what they need. And if you don’t, ask! It can be extremely meaningful for young people to be part of a solution; especially those students who are looking for ways to support a friend who is grieving. I would also strongly encourage you to use your own God-given gifts in coming up with tangible outlets for kids to express grief.
Here are some ideas that may help you get started:
If you are athletically inclined, spend some time having a conversation with a student over a golf game or a long run.
If you’re artistic, invite a student to paint with you. See if they can express what they are feeling on canvas or have them creatively depict a comforting Bible verse. Romans 8:38-39 would be a great place to start.
Are you working with a young person who is dealing with guilt in addition to their grief? Try having them write their worries down on paper and then watching them disappear in a fire.
Be spontaneous. Don’t be afraid to cancel a regularly scheduled event or to bring your students together on the fly.
Is your youth group experiencing grief due to the loss of loved one? Consider creating some sort of memorial as a group. Plant a flower garden somewhere on church property or devote part of a wall in your youth room to paint a mural, to the glory of God, as a reminder of that loved one’s saving faith in Jesus.
Whatever you may be facing in ministry, and however you are led to move forward, I pray that the Lord’s presence will rest on you and the young people who have been entrusted to your care. May the love of Jesus shine brightly through you!
Grace likes to refer to herself as a Nebrexan, having been transplanted from Texas to Nebraska at age 11. More recently she spent 4 years living in beautiful Northern California. There are few things that make her heart as happy as traveling. She loves the experience of diving into a new culture-the people she meets, taking in the landscape, and trying new foods. Most recently she’s been on mission trips to Kenya and Haiti. When she has down time, you’ll find her singing, drinking tea, painting, hiking, or curling up with a good book. Grace and her 65 lb lap dog, Frankie, live in central Lincoln with a group of friends in a Christian community called “the Bollivar House.” She currently serves at Coordinator of Discipleship at Calvary Lutheran Church.