Our community has been rocked by a horrific car accident; you can read one of the news articles about it here. Basically, a local family was in a fatal accident early yesterday morning resulting in both of the parents and the younger of their two children dying at the scene. While the family was not from our church, it impacted our student ministry in that the middle school son that died in the accident attended school with many of our middle school students, and the high school daughter that survived attends the local high school that most of our high school students attend. We spent a good part of the student hour talking about the accident, praying for the family and friends, and talking about help that is out there for those who are grieving, and how students can support those who are grieving.
For parents in our church, I have some extra copies of the book, Emergency Response Handbook for Youth Ministry, which has a chapter on helping teenagers deal with and respond to death. Last year I gave copies of the book to all my volunteer leaders – it’s an invaluable resource. Below are a few highlights from the chapter – parents, email me (MatthewMcNutt@bvbcnet.org) to get a copy of the book. Teens respond to tragedy and process grief differently than adults – I hope this can be helpful.
Grief has predictable stages. The many stages of grief include shock or denial (this isn’t happening to me), anger (why is this happening to me?), guilt (it’s my fault), bargaining (I’ll be a better person if…), sadness or depression (I don’t care anymore), and acceptance (I’m ready for whatever comes next).
Grieving is different for each individual.The grief process will look different for each student. Once a student begins to feel his or her emotions, he or she will not progress through the stages of grief in a linear fashion, by completing one stage and moving to the next.
- Listen. The most beneficial thing that you can do for a grieving teenager is to be a good listener. The bereaved student will need a safe place to share feelings and thoughts. While listening, don’t give advice until asked for input.
- Normalize the student’s feelings. You can help your grieving student see that any feelings he or she has about the loss are normal. Don’t place expectations on how the student should feel—any feeling is normal and should be accepted.
- Allow normal activities to continue. As soon as possible after a death, reintroduce activities into the student’s life.
- Don’t forget about the family. The loss has likely had an impact on the student’s parents, siblings, and extended family members as well.
- Encourage the expression of feelings. As time passes, continue to facilitate the expression of the student’s feelings by asking open-ended questions about the deceased person, such as:
- What’s your favorite memory with [the deceased loved one]?
- Which quality did you most appreciate about him [her], and why?
- What would you most like to tell him or her?
What Not to Say
- “I know just how you feel.” Grieving is such an intensely personal process that you have no idea how someone feels, even if you are grieving yourself.
- “They’re better off.” It may be true but still don’t say it.
- “They’ll always be in your heart.” Of course, the mourner will always have memories, but right now they’d rather have the flesh-and-blood person.
What to Say
- “I don’t know what to say.” Honesty is refreshing.
- “Do you want to talk about it?” Sometimes it helps to talk, and other times silence helps most.
- “Do you know how I can best help you?”