I minister in a town of about 50,000 drawing on 3 different high schools. In the last 18 months, 8 high school teenagers have died unexpectedly from car accidents, illness, and suicide. In the midst of all of this tragedy, I have learned 4 important lessons about how we should respond to teen death within our communities.
Be careful what information you share
Getting out in front of the information is essential to managing the chaos and high emotions surrounding the death of a teen. You will not be able to control the gossip and rumors swirling through the hallways at school, but you can control the information that you give out. Try to find out – either by directly contacting the family, or through the pastor’s contact with them – exactly what information the family wants released about the teens’ death. When communicating with teens be honest (“The parents are not releasing that information” rather than “I don’t know”) but let the burden of information sharing fall on them rather than spreading new information, gossip, or rumors yourself.
Don’t wait for them to come to you.
After each death, I found it helpful to offer some additional drop-in hours to our youth room in the time between the death and the funeral as well. Even if the teen who died was not a member of your youth group, some of the teens with whom you have built relationships may need a place where they can come and talk about their grief, share memories of their deceased friend, or even simply wrestle with an awareness of their own mortality. However, we cannot just wait for the teens to come to us.
After the death of one young girl who had been killed in a car accident, we hosted a memorial service at the parish, but only a few teens showed up. The next day I got a phone call from my pastor letting me know that the teen’s close circle of friends were gathering at her home. In what was one of the most uncomfortable, frightening, and insecure moments of ministry for me ever, I went out to the home with my pastor to offer my condolences and provide pastoral support for the teens and family who were gathering there. I went in with no idea what to say or do or how I would be received, but what I found was a group of people who simply wanted to share their memories of their loved one. I was a new set of ears, and so beyond the initial “I’m so sorry for your loss,” I didn’t have to say much of anything. I simply needed to listen and appreciate the gift that this young woman had been to her close friends and family.
Some Questions Have No Answers
There are a lot of platitudes that I have heard that try to offer comfort to those who are mourning and to try to answer the “why” questions that surround the death of someone so young:
- God needed another angel.
- Everything happens for a reason, even if we don’t know it yet.
- God took him because it was his time.
While it’s true that these statements sometimes offer the grieving family member or friend a moment of comfort, they can often cause more turmoil in the later stages of grief. Each of them implies that God killed the teen – that in some way, He wanted this to happen. At the most recent funeral I went to for a young man who had committed suicide only four days before he was to be Confirmed, the priest gave a homily that taught me a better answer to the “why.”
He read the “ask, seek, knock” gospel passage from Luke (11:9-13) and commented that we come before God in our grief asking why – Why would he do this? Why would God allow it to happen? Why didn’t he seek out help? Why didn’t he think of all those who loved him? In his infinite wisdom, the priest responded to all of these questions: “I don’t know. I don’t know why this young man killed himself or why God chose not to intervene, but I do know that God didn’t make this happen and that God doesn’t choose this path. Instead, He reaches out to us and waits for us to turn to Him in our grief for comfort and peace.” This priest taught me that “I don’t know” is not only a perfectly acceptable answer, sometimes it’s the only answer. Families and teenagers in grief do not need lessons on the theology of death or free will. They need a listening ear who can hear and affirm their grief and then turn them toward God for comfort.
Take a prayer time-out
The time surrounding the death of a teen can be incredibly tumultuous. Meeting with the family, connecting with the pastor, scheduling funerals and visitations, comforting teens, contacting Core– these things take up a lot of time. In the midst of the turmoil, remember to take time out to pray. Take time to reflect on your own feelings of grief and sadness. If you knew the teen, find a quiet place to remember some of your own favorite memories and thank God for the gift that teen was in your life. Pray for the teens and family who are grieving the loss – you will likely tell them you are praying for them – be sure to hold true to that promise. Finally, please do not forget to pray for the teen who has died. That same passage from Luke says “knock and the door will be opened unto you.” Throughout the days preceding the funeral and particularly during the beautiful rites of the Mass of Christian Burial, knock unceasingly at the gates of heaven and ask God to open them up to admit His child.
Have you experienced the death of a teen in your ministry? What tips would you share with a youth minister facing this for the first time?