No youth pastor should ever have to go through the death of a student. But that does not stop tragedy from happening. As painful as it is to think about, there will most likely be tragedy in some of your churches.
I experienced such tragedy in my youth group when I was 17. Thomas was on his way to our week-long mission camp when he was in a horrific car accident. His death affected each of us in similar and different ways. One of the things that kept us going in the midst of tragedy was our youth pastor, Allen.
The following is a result of almost ten years of reflection upon both the accident and my youth pastor’s strength through the storm. I hope you find it helpful in whatever grief you are walking through with your youth. These five things are critical:
In the midst of tragedy, your job is to listen. Your job is not to talk, to fix it, to give all the right answers, or to save your youth from being angry at God. Your job is to provide a safe place for your students to express the emotions and questions they experience. Elizabeth Kübler-Ross’ 5 Stages (Denial, Anger, Bargaining, Depression, and Acceptance) have to be lived out.
You do your students a disservice when you attempt to save them with horrible answers like “God needed one more angel in heaven,” or “It was just her time I guess.” No. Stop. Your job is to listen, to be present; especially in the immediate days after the tragedy.
Two: Be Compassionate
When most people first experience death, their understandings and perspectives can shift drastically. Your youth are probably wrestling with the concept of a loving God in light of a completely inexplicable occurrence. They will most likely wonder how a loving, all-powerful, and just God can allow such a thing to happen. Any “everything-happens-for-a-reason” response is much worse than a simple “I don’t know,” or “I don’t understand either.”
Your students are likely experiencing the reality of death for the first time, and so they are also coming to grips with their own mortality. They no longer see themselves as invincible. Physical life now has a clear end. Death is no longer a story in a book.
Accept that anger is normal. When Thomas died, I was angry at God. I was also angry that the world didn’t seem to recognize my hurt. The world kept spinning, people kept going to work, and life kept moving. The world should have stopped but it didn’t. Anger is a part of this. Let it happen. Be patient and compassionate.
The most important part of this whole process is God’s promise. Death is not the end. Jesus Christ has defeated death forever and promises new life in resurrection. That means we have a hope that surpasses pain and suffering. Paul reminds us, “God works in all things for the good of those who love him and are called according to His purpose” (Romans 8:28). Death is incredibly painful, but it also adds a depth to faith that has never previously been understood. Remember and remind your youth that God is present in all things.
Our culture wrongly expects us to get over loss in a few days. And life does go on. In fact, many of your students will begin to heal and find a new normal, but the time it takes each student will vary.
So keep tabs on them, especially in the few months after. Be sensitive to changes in behaviors and outlooks. Listen. Be intentional about checking on your students. Don’t be afraid to point a student and his or her parents toward more professional help if it looks like you are out of your element. You are not a therapist, but you will have a unique role in their process of healing.
The hardest part for most in the midst of tragedy will be self-care. You will likely be the one being strong for everyone else. Do the best you can. Be real with your students. Acknowledge your own questions and doubts. Have mentors or friends in ministry that you can go to when you need some relief. Make sure you have a chance to deal with your own grief. Go see a counselor.
My prayer is that you never have to go through a tragedy like the one I went through. But if you do end up in that sort of situation, you can be equipped by practicing these things. Trust that the Holy Spirit will guide you. Pray unceasingly. May God grant you peace, strength, and love as you continue in ministry, in the good times and the bad.