Our American culture does not handle death well. We don’t know how to grieve or how to be with people in their despair. Uncomfortable with silence, we attempt to fill it. When we do, we often say something dumb that only heightens everyone’s discomfort.
Unfortunately, church people seldom handle grief better than the world around us. What’s more, in our effort to shelter teens from death, we’ve unintentionally removed our chance to model for them how to grieve with and for others.
Thankfully, this doesn’t have to be the case.
The next time your youth ministry faces a loss, view it as an opportunity for discipleship. Don’t just surround the grieving family with your love and care. Instead, equip others to do the same.
Rather than attend the wake alone, arrange a time for those in your youth ministry to go together. Doing so gives you an opportunity to console the distraught, disciple students through the grieving process, and powerfully communicate your ministry’s presence, care, and love to the grieving family.
Prior to the wake, meet in a neutral setting. Thank students for caring enough about the family to attend.
Since not all students have experienced death before, prepare them for what they’re about to experience. Talk about what they’re likely to see as well as visitation etiquette – signing the guest book.
paying respects to the family, standing before the coffin, etc.
Remind students that what matters most is their presence.
Help students avoid saying something dumb by giving them other options. Since a grieving family is never doing well, tell them to avoid asking, “How are you doing?” Encourage them to instead say, “I’m so sorry for your loss,” or “I’m praying for you.” Such responses are always appropriate.
Encourage students to look at pictures of the deceased with his or her loved ones. Doing so gives you a point of connection, a way to learn about the deceased, and a way to invite loved ones to share stories using simple prompts like “Tell me about this picture”.
Validate students’ emotions. Recognize that death affects students in a multitude of ways, regardless of how well they knew the deceased. Give students permission to feel whatever they’re feeling. Remind them that just as they are there for the grieving family, you’re there for them.
Go with students to the coffin and model how to respectfully pay their last respects.
Repeat the aforementioned steps with regard to funerals or memorial services.
In the days and weeks following a death, model what it means to show continued care for the family. Organize a meal train. Get together with kids to make meals for the family. Reserve time in your youth ministry’s gathering to write cards for the grieving family.
While dealing with death is never easy, by taking these steps, we can powerfully disciple students and give them tools to use for the rest of their lives. In so doing, we’ll show them how to tangibly bear Christ’s love to the world by entering into and grieving with the brokenhearted.
Jen Bradbury has been in youth ministry for 11 years. She’s the youth director at Faith Evangelical Lutheran Church in Glen Ellyn, IL. Her writing has appeared in YouthWorker Journal, The Christian Century, and Immerse. She blogs at ymjen.com