Okay, I admit it. As far as tragedy goes, I have led a pretty pain free life.

And then it changed. 2009 made up for the previous pain-free 36 years. I’ll never forget the phone call as long as I live. It was very early Saturday morning and my cell phone was ringing. Who could have been calling me so early? It was the Pastor. “Lauren…was killed in a car accident last night.”

No, not MY Lauren. The Lauren who just graduated high school. The Lauren who had been one of my most active members in youth group activities. The Lauren who sang in our Praise Team from the day it began. Surely, this must be a cruel joke! This coming just two weeks after the death of a former student of mine, Aaron, who was also a recently graduated Senior. On top of that a neighbor of the church taking his own life who had been having spiritual conversations with me. All of this happening in a four week span. It was just…too much.

After I shared the news and tears with my wife, in a daze I threw on the first pair of jeans and shirt I had available and made a mad dash to the church. As painful as it was going to be, I wanted to make sure my students heard the tragic news from me and not through the wildfire rumor mill that is the instantaneous Facebook and MySpace culture. And it was hard, really hard. I was successful in informing most of the students by phone of Lauren’s death.

Then the most unexpected thing happened. At least it was unexpected to me. The students started to come. Within an hour, my very small corner office was filled with students who did not know where to go, or what to do, and were in a whole heck of a lot of pain. They kept coming, and coming. We have been a fairly small church in my time here at Peace and to have fifty students, much less the hundreds of students that flooded our doors that day, would have been an unusual occurrence.

I was able to have some deep conversations with some very lost young men and women. They were seeking solace and answers to questions that, at the time, I wasn’t sure I could answer. At the time I was just trying to get through. Giggling to myself, the way I was dressed and unshowered, and thinking, “Gosh I hope I don’t stink.” The whole day I was thanking God for honoring me with this opportunity and praying that He would provide me with enough wisdom and energy to thrive that day. He provided me with more than enough. At 11 pm that night, about fifteen hours later, I finally gently kicked out the last of the remaining mourners and promised them a formal informal gathering in a few days. Many students came again a few nights later, prompting more great discussions.

Seven months later there are five students I met that day who still come every single week to our Sunday night program. One of them joined us on our mission trip this last summer, and all of them are joining us on our next trip this summer. They have become active participants with our church in being Christ followers together.

Because of these tragedies in my life I have come to a better understanding of when Paul wrote to the Romans “and we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love Him, who have been called according to His purpose.” God didn’t cause Lauren’s or Aaron’s death. I know what caused their death. We live in a sinful and broken world and, because of this, bad things happen to good people. Even the earth is crying out in agony. Insurance claims put on their forms “act of God” when a disaster hits. I couldn’t disagree more. God doesn’t cause bad things to happen. But He does work among us, in our hearts, and with our hands and feet, when terrible things do occur.

Although I admit I am still hurting, the joy I feel because of the lost souls who are now saved because of all that God worked through this church in the last seven months is enough.

As Paul wrote, “Not only so, but we also rejoice in our sufferings, because we know that suffering produces perseverance; perseverance, character; and character, hope. And hope does not disappoint us, because God has poured out his love into our hearts by the Holy Spirit, whom he has given us.”

Often when tragedies occur people will ask Why? Why did You let this happen? when the question should be Lord, will You give me enough strength to endure this? Will You allow me to persevere through this ordeal? For me, He has done just that. He has allowed me to win over hearts in His name through this tragedy. It has become Lauren’s legacy. She has won over hearts through the life of faith she led and beckoned her lost friends to the foot of the cross in her death.

Thank you Jesus for my sufferings! May we continue to win hearts for You and continue to rest on the hope that is found in Your sacrifice through all the heartache and sorrow.

Suggestions to help you guide students who are grieving

  • BE THERE FOR THEM. I’ve been hearing all the time, “I don’t know what to say. I might offend them so I’m just not going to try.” I have not experienced this at all. I find even when I say something dumb the students really appreciated that I was there for them.
  • If an opportunity arises, offer to pray for them.
  • It’s perfectly okay to show some emotion.

Questions that may come up

“I know _____was a Christian but he/she was not living a good life when he/she passed. I’m afraid they are not in Heaven right now.”
We do not know a person’s heart when they pass away. As Jesus says it only takes faith the size of a mustard seed to be saved and we ALL have fallen short (Rom. 3: 22-24).
“I’m so mad at God for taking my friend away!”
I tell my students it’s okay to be mad at God. Part of a real relationship is sometimes being mad at the other person. I think God will take it. It’s better than just turning your back on Him. There are points in Scripture where Job and Jeremiah were mad at God for their circumstances and God never said to not be mad at Him. He simply said “trust Me.”
“Youth group is never going to be the same.”
Probably. But that doesn’t mean we stop growing in our faith. Let’s talk about ways to see if we can ‘tweak’ things to make it more comfortable to praise God during youth group night.
What questions have come up for you? How have you walked with students through tragedies? Feel free to share your stories in the comments below.