Dude, That Sucks: Walking With Students in Times of Tragedy

Do you know how hard it is to find a sympathy card for an 8th-grade boy? It’s downright impossible. After a close relative of one of our students passed away, I headed to the store to find a simple card. Out of the hundreds of choices, none seemed to fit the bill. Either they were flowery, overly poetic, or both. For the current situation, I needed a card that expressed my feelings of solidarity with the student. All it needed to say was, “Dude, that sucks.” 

Walking with students through tragedy and crisis, be it losing a loved one, divorce, or some kind of abuse can be challenging. As a youth worker, you can be a significant means of grace for your students walking through a crisis. Here are a few things to consider when tragedy strikes.  

A Ministry of Presence

One of the first feelings or emotions to hit when tragedy strikes is loneliness. Regardless of how many friends a student has, when everything hits the fan, they will feel increasingly alone. While it may not be possible to be with the student immediately, reach out to them in some way as soon as possible. Then, schedule a time to connect with them on a personal level. Meet them for ice cream, a coke, or for lunch. If you can’t personally do this, make sure that a member of your team does.    

In the immediate aftermath of a tragedy, keep up the communication. After the possible initial rush of attention, once the funeral is over or the divorce is final, the real darkness sets in. Send another card. Text them regularly. It doesn’t need to be much; it could be as simple as a fist bump emoji or a “you got this” message. Encourage your students and adult staff to do the same.    

Providing a Safe Space to Question

With tragedy comes the inevitable set of questions. It doesn’t really matter how old you are when bad things happen, we tend to want to know why. Well-meaning Christians will offer up statements like, “Well, everything happens for a reason,” or, “God must have needed another angel in heaven.” Pat answers like these tend to do more damage than good.

As Wesleyans, we don’t believe that everything happens because God has orchestrated it to happen. The hurt and pain in our world are a product of human freedom and sinfulness, and it breaks God’s heart as much as it breaks us. Sometimes we just don’t know why something happened.

Our hope, indeed our confident hope, is that God is working all the terrible things in this world into something beautiful.

Involving the Parents/Guardians

The type of tragedy or crisis will dictate how much and in what fashion you might involve a student’s parents or guardians in your pastoral care. It would be advisable to communicate with parents or guardians to see how a student is handling the situation at home. Some appropriate questions to ask parents or guardians might be:

  • What kind of questions has he/she asked of you?
  • Is the student continuing to be involved in school and/or extracurricular activities?
  • Are they eating appropriately?
  • Have you noticed any signs of self-harm?
  • What do you think the student needs from our youth ministry?
  • What does your family need from our youth ministry?

When appropriate, and without betraying a student’s trust, communicate to the parents or guardians information or observations from your time with the student that they might find useful. 

Knowing When to Refer

Tragedies and crisis might escalate an existing problem. Or, it might quickly move beyond your proficiencies in psychology or mental health. If it seems the student is having a particularly rough time dealing with a crisis or tragedy, refer their family to a trusted psychologist. 

Unless you have the proper training and certifications, offering psychological help can cause serious problems. In some cases, a student’s life might hang in the balance. If choosing to refer a student or family to a health care professional could possibly save a life, it’s a chance worth taking. You can always continue to offer pastoral care during this time. In the meantime, curate a list of professional services. Having such a list will enable you to offer help in a timely fashion.  

Always Remember

Especially in the event of the death of a loved one, the regular cycle of holidays can be torturous. It’s not always convenient, but step up your care for a student around holidays like Thanksgiving, Christmas, and even birthdays. Place the anniversary of a death on your calendar so that you can send a card or give a comforting hug.

Death anniversaries can often bring with them a flood of negative emotions. Caring for your students will be just as important a year later.    

It can be easy to default to offering a canned curriculum for dealing with tragedy or crisis. While providing a struggling student or family with a 6-week course on grief recovery might be helpful, it can only ever serve as part of your pastoral approach to the crisis. Even lists like the one above can only ever scratch the surface. 

The wounds from many tragedies will last a lifetime, and if we act appropriately in those situations, so will the memory of the love that the church and her workers had for a student.   

Jason Buckwalter