Most of us who have any experience working with teenagers probably have too many stories of tragedy and crises affecting the students with whom we work. One of my worst experiences with teenage tragedy occurred before I entered youth ministry, while teaching high school.
As a teacher, a phone call before 7 a.m. never means good news, and this particular day would be no different. My department chair described the tragedy to me in terms I did not understand. “One of our students immolated himself at the flagpole in front of the school early this morning. A custodian found his remains when he showed up to unlock the building today.” After arriving at school I would learn the student had committed suicide by setting fire to himselfâ€”burning to death.
A tragedy this shocking stirs emotions in even the most distant individual, but I especially was struck by how a core group of this student’s friends saw grief over this event as a right belonging exclusively to them. He only had a small group of close friends, and they were more offended than comforted by the emotional expressions of other students through the ordeal.
During this tragedy I came to understand how trials of any typeâ€”regardless of severityâ€”often lead to two different types of distress that we must understand in our students: the specific pain of those directly impacted by a crisis situation and the general grief experienced in varying degrees by those casually associated with the event.
Unresolved grief or memories of past experiences often lurk just beneath the surface of consciousness in adults and youth. When confronting issues of all sortsâ€”whether it is an unplanned pregnancy, natural disaster or major crisis such as a school shootingâ€”many of our responses to the crisis at hand spring from the emotional baggage we carry in our minds from past experiences.
As we mature, we gain a better understanding of how to balance expressions of grief with respect and support for those who experience a loss or hardship much closer than ourselves.
When dealing with youth, it is important to understand these events often cause excessive emotional responses that, on the surface, seem out of proportion to the level of emotion we would expect them to cause.
Too often, we dismiss these expressions as “teenage drama” or “attention-seeking” behaviors, but we must learn to recognize when these expressions are truly legitimate, just disproportionate. When dealing with disproportionate grief, youth workers can provide proper guidance to students in several different ways.
During a crisis, we should make sure we minister to the students who are most directly affected by the crisis. We also may guide students who are not as close to a tragedy toward appropriate expressions of their grief. Finally, we can take advantages of the many opportunities available to teach students how to react to crises before they occur.
Ministering to the Distressed
Firstâ€”in any crisis, big or smallâ€”as youth ministers, we should make every effort to reach out to the students in our ministry most directly affected by the crisis. Most of the time, just asking a student if they have heard the news and how they are handling it will open the door for honest conversation about how connected they may be to the loss or tragedy. These contacts allow us to make sure students are being taken care of and attended to in their time of need.
Guiding Student’s Responses
Often, as we begin to contact more students, or as they contact us, we encounter individuals who appear to express a level of emotion or grief out of proportion to their connection to the event. This type of student can present several challenges when dealing with teenagers in a time of crisis. For one, students who are closest to the crisis often take offense at excessive displays from others who seem peripheral to the ordeal they face.
The ability to recognize and respond to grief increases with maturity; but regardless of age, a grief response may be triggered whether one is connected directly to a tragic event or they experience it vicariously. No one should place themselves in the role of determining who has the right to be grieved by a crisis. Sometimes we must try to guide our students toward the expressions that most honor God and others.
Prior to raising Lazarus from the dead, the Bible tells us “Jesus wept.” This should be a guiding principle in leading the “over-emoting” student toward proper expressions of his or her emotions. Jesus knew He would raise Lazarus from the grave, so one motive for Jesus’ tears were Lazarus’ friends; their pain moved Him to ease their suffering. By framing our model of responding to crisis through this story, we can give students the opportunity to express their honest emotions while helping them channel these emotions toward expressions that will support their peers and honor God.
Ultimately, students who continually show disproportionate responses should find the source of their grief and deal with it. A youth minister may not be the best person to bear the primary responsibility for dealing with this problem; most of us probably are not equipped for this type of counseling. It would be appropriate to engage students in conversations about their reaction to tragedies while they are in a less emotional state. A few probing questions to the student may lead him or her toward a bit of self-discovery and awareness of emotional responses to difficult situations and preparation to handle tragedies better in the future.
Our best hope for helping students appropriately respond to tragedy comes during the times when we are not in the midst of crisis.
Several months ago, a young student at the school where my wife teaches suffered a terrible accident. None of the students in our youth group attend the school or know the student, but they still spent a good deal of time talking about it during one of our meetings. My wife took the lead in discussing with them the difference in sharing gossip and expressing concern. She helped them see how our reactions to situations that we are not involved in can be hurtful to the individuals who are. We also were able to have a great conversation about our desire to be “in the know” versus the needs of those most directly suffering from the tragedy. At least for the time, students were able to see the suffering of those who deal with tragedy as separate from their own personal reactions and how they best could respond to others.
These conversations cannot guarantee disproportionate grief no longer will lead to inappropriate expressions, but the conversation has begun, so when the situation arises in the future, we share a common point of reference for dealing with pain and moving forward together.