Photo by AlexLP.
“Grieve now or regret it later.”
That was the most common advice people gave me when I was twenty years old and lost my father. I wanted to heed their warnings, but I only had one problem: I didn’t know how to grieve. I remember sitting in my room staring at pictures trying to facilitate an emotional moment and thinking, “Am I doing it? Did I grieve?”
Knowing how to grieve well and supporting students in their grief may be one of the most valuable resources a youth worker can have. When a youth worker is unsure about how to respond to grief, their students may feel a subtle pressure to “get over it” or to deal with their loss by themselves. When a youth worker is comfortable with grief, their students are more likely to talk to them about their loss.
Grief can be confusing, and though everyone experiences loss, few of us really know how to grieve our losses well. I suppose I didn’t heed the advice given to me, because it was years after my dad died that I really started exploring grief. Initially it was so I could help others, but in the process I found my own good grief.
WHEN DO WE NEED TO GRIEVE?
One of the first things I discovered about grief is that it doesn’t just have to do with someone dying. In the book All Our Losses All Our Griefs, authors Kenneth Mitchell and Herbert Anderson emphasize that any loss someone experiences must be grieved. They even break it down into six major types of losses 1 :
1 Material Loss – “Yes, you can grieve if you lose your cell phone.”
2 Relationship Loss – “Yes, you can grieve if you break up with your boyfriend.”
3 Intrapsychic Loss or loss of a dream – “Yes, you can grieve not getting the job you wanted.”
4 Functional Loss – “Yes, you can grieve breaking your arm.”
5 Role Loss – “Yes, you can grieve being single if you get married.”
6 Systematic Loss – “Yes, you can grieve if your child leaves home and the family dynamics change.”
I had never thought of a person needing to grieve the loss of a dream or the loss of function in their body before. I’m sure I have been grieving or someone around me has and I haven’t even acknowledged it.
While I was directing a year-long volunteer program I noticed a trend among the students, especially the ones right out of high school. In the first few months of adjusting they would say things like, “I don’t know why I am acting like this” and “I’m not normally like this!” Mitchell and Anderson write, “Growing up and leaving home involves relationship loss, material loss, intrapsychic loss, systematic loss, and role loss: every form of loss but functional. We therefore believe that leaving home is one of the most powerful and critical loss events any human being undergoes.” 2 At first I didn’t realize it, but those youth were grieving. This is incredibly valuable to know as you prepare the seniors in your youth ministry for graduation. [For more about helping students prepare to leave high school, please see additional posts here.] Similarly, you can assume that every kid who moves to or from your town is grieving.
After I read about all losses needing to be grieved, I started asking the youth in my ministry the question, “Do you think you’re grieving?” At times I even gave them permission to grieve: “You know it’s ok for you to grieve that.” I was so surprised at student’s reactions; more often than not they seemed relieved.
HOW TO SUPPORT SOMEONE IN THE MIDST OF GRIEF
There are different ways to support others when they are initially experiencing a loss and as they continue to work through the grief process. When a kid or adult first experiences loss, here are some things to keep in mind:
1. AVOID PROBING QUESTIONS THAT HURT
There are some things we often say to people who are grieving that bring more pain than comfort. After “I’m sorry,” we often ask questions like:
- “Was she sick for a long time?”
- “Was the accident his fault?”
- “Was he a Christian?”
- “Were you close?”
These questions themselves are not harmful, but sometimes the reason we ask them is not out of concern. We ask because we are attempting to avoid having to experience that type of suffering. In order for our mind to wrap itself around what happened, we ask all sorts of probing questions that can sometimes jab at a person’s loss, especially when they have to describe the situation again and again. It is helpful to invite people to share rather than investigate. This means being observant, taking clues from the person if they are comfortable sharing, and offering to listen if they want to share more. As a general rule, assume that a person has shared as much as they want you to know when they tell you about a loss.
2. BE CAREFUL NOT TO COMPARE
We are also prone to compare. Using ourselves as the center, we tend to use a subtle scale from “not as bad” to “worse than” us. In A Grace Disguised, Jerry Sittser describes his experience of losing his mother, wife and daughter all in the same accident. He said that before the accident he would try to quantify and compare people’s loss by looking at things like, “the numbers killed, the length of time spent in the hospital, the severity of abuse, the degree of family dysfunction, the difficulty and inconvenience of an illness, the complexity of details during a divorce, or the strings of bad luck.” 3 However, after the accident, when he became an “instant celebrity” because his loss could not be imagined or surpassed, he couldn’t stand others’ tendency to compare. He says that when we compare we are driven to two unhealthy extremes. The people determined to have a loss “not that bad” feel like their loss is not valid and are “dismissed as unworthy of attention and recognition.” 4 And those who have a loss that is deemed “worse” can convince themselves that they are alone in their suffering and that no one can understand or help. “They are the ultimate victims. So they indulge themselves with their pain and gain a strange kind of pleasure in their misery.” 4 Especially during grief, comparing is never helpful.
3. BE PRESENT AND SILENT
Overwhelmingly, the research and literature on grieving suggest that the most helpful way to support someone may simply be to be present with them silently. Mitchell and Anderson write, “Two warring needs develop: the need to be alone with one’s grief and the need not to be isolated from meaningful communities of support.” 5 They observe a beautiful Jewish custom called “sitting shiva” (pronounced “shee-vah”) where for seven days friends and family are able come and sit with the bereaved person at their home without saying anything except maybe a hello, good-by or shalom. 5 How wonderful if we practiced that today! It would eliminate all the awkward “sorry’s”, the fumbling over words and people feebly trying to answer all of the “why?” questions.
I think when my dad died I would have appreciated a “sitting shiva” session – a time when I did not have to be alone with all of the whirling thoughts in my head, but also a time where I did not have to try to explain to people what I was thinking or comfort them when they did not know how to comfort me.
This is good news for us as we support others who are grieving. Often our best response is to be present, which frees us from feeling like we need to fix the situation. In my own experience, I find it is usually because of my own discomfort that I respond to the grief of others in the way I do. I try to soften the pain I see, I try to minimize or understand it. Mitchell and Anderson note, “It is equally important to demonstrate God’s suffering love by our willingness to listen to suffering and grief, and not give in to the impulse to run from the pain, shut off the complaint, or respond too quickly with pious platitudes.” 6
HELPING PEOPLE THROUGH THE PROCESS OF GRIEF:
As most of us have experienced, loss begins with an initial sort of rawness. After this rawness subsides, we then enter into the grief process. Much has been written about grief, loss, death and dying. In an attempt to understand and predict what is happening we often gravitate toward models that give us stages and linear progressions of grief.
For example, from her experience of working with patients with terminal illnesses, Dr. Elizabeth Kübler-Ross writes about five stages the dying go through: Denial and Isolation, Anger, Bargaining, Depression, and Acceptance. 7 The problem with these types of models is that grieving is often not a linear process and is very unique to each person. It may be more helpful to have a framework for understanding grief than it is to have an expectation of chronological stages.
Based on my review of research on loss, I believe a successful grieving process involves doing two things at the same time: being able to remember and being able to hope. 8
REMEMBERING THE PAST
When grieving a death or a loss, it is important to remember the actual person or situation for who they were or what it was in your life, complete with strengths, weaknesses and quirks. When remembering, people can sometimes focus on remembering all the good or all the bad parts, but both are important. It is valuable to explore ways to celebrate what was and acknowledge how the griever’s life has been affected because of knowing that person or experiencing that situation.
As youth workers, we are able to encourage this type of holistic remembering. For example, if a class of seniors is about to graduate it is not uncommon to have a time of acknowledgement or reflection. During this exciting time, remembering can sometimes be filled with good memories and testimonies of growth. But for the student there may be a darker side as well.
I remember when I was graduating from high school it was scary to think that a chapter of my life was closing so definitively. I knew things would never be the same again and any secret hopes or dreams I had of who I would be or what I would do during that time was impossible once I crossed the stage and shook my principal’s hand. Youth pastors can invite those who are grieving to both celebrate and lament as they remember. When a person is able to embrace all of who a person or situation was in their life it is a sign that they are successfully grieving.
HOPING FOR THE FUTURE
While one aspect of the grief process is being able to look into the past, the other side of the grief process is being able to look into the future, or being able to hope. To hope, we must be able to look ahead and envision a new life. For some this may look like dreaming about long-range plans, and for some it is waking up and being able to make a plan for the day. When you have always envisioned your life a certain way or with a certain person in it, and then for whatever reason that becomes impossible, it takes some time to hope again. When someone dies, those who were closest to that person have an even more complicated time looking forward to a life without them. Sometimes hoping means envisioning a completely new life.
The youth worker can help foster this “re-dreaming” process. For example, the death of a friend is devastating for kids. Coupled with the loss of the friend is also the loss of any plans made together. It can sometimes feel disloyal to make new plans or continue on without the friend, and the youth worker can walk alongside the student to help brainstorm and encourage them in this process. When a student can hope again, when they can make new connections and have new dreams, it is a sign that they are successfully grieving.
DOING BOTH AT THE SAME TIME
I have noticed that sometimes people are good at one or the other of these processes. Some people are able to remember, but refuse to hope for a different future. Others are able to hope and move ahead but are unwilling to look back. If there is not a balance of both hoping and remembering a person can get stuck in their grief.
After developing this concept I realized that I was a bit stuck. I am much better at hoping than I am at remembering. Once I realized this I wanted to find ways to remember my dad well. I put together a scrapbook of pictures and memories of my dad and invited some of my dad’s friends to share what they remembered about him. I was surprised at how I was able to continue to get to know things about my dad from what other people remembered.
So “good grief” means grieving all our losses by being able to fully remember what that person or situation meant to us and at the same time being hopeful for our future without that person or situation. Now when someone close to me is working through the grief process I can assess if they are a better “hoper” or “rememberer” and invite them to practice the other side of grief as well. [For another FYI resource on helping kids work through loss, see “In the Aftermath: Processing Trauma Through the Lens of Lament,” ]
WHERE IS GOD IN GRIEF?
In the midst of suffering we often ask hard questions about God’s character and will. The questions often have to do with “why?” It is important to be able to engage with these questions with someone who is suffering. While exploring grief I have made a shift in my head from a God who “takes” people to a God who laments death. I am now able to recognize that God suffers to see us suffer.
In his book Lament for a Son, NIrene Cholas Wolterstorff writes, “The Christian gospel tells us more of the meaning of sin than of suffering.” 9 As much as I search the scriptures for the meaning of suffering I am left unsatisfied. There is a mystery to suffering. Wolterstorff writes, “Perhaps it has been a mistake to think that God reveals himself. He speaks, yes. But as he speaks, he hides. His face he does not show us.” 9 God does not explain everything. Wolterstorff concludes, “Instead of explaining our suffering God shares it.” 9 This is such a hopeful idea to me. Though God does not always reveal the meaning of our suffering, He shares in our suffering. Isaiah the prophet writes,
“Surely he took up our infirmities and carried our sorrows, yet we considered him stricken by God, smitten by him, and afflicted. But he was pierced for our transgressions, he was crushed for our iniquities; the punishment that brought us peace was upon him, and by his wounds we are healed.” 10
It is amazing that we serve a wounded God, a God who also experiences suffering. I do not often dwell on this. I often think about God as omnipotent and powerful. I think of God as a protector. I do not often recognize that he is also a grieving Father. Or that it is through the suffering and wounds of Jesus that we know who he is. Wolterstorff writes, “‘Put your hands into my wounds,’ said the risen Jesus to Thomas, ‘and you will know who I am.’ The wounds of Christ are his identity. They tell us who he is.” [NIrene Cholas Wolterstorff, Lament, 92.] We have a God who suffers as we suffer. Perhaps God does not explain suffering so that we do not have to explain our suffering.
AN INVITATION TO GRIEVE WELL
As you look around your youth ministry, there are no doubts that kids are experiencing loss. But are they grieving their losses well? Is anyone giving them tools to face loss by both remembering and hoping?
Grieving is good because it means that we are invested and that we care. It is a sign that we love. Supporting others through their grief is a way that we express our love for them. So we grieve because we love, and perhaps we survive because we are loved.
- Can you identify some of the losses the kids in your ministry are going through right now?
- If the loss of one student in particular jumps out at you, ask them if they would be willing to check in with you on that. See if you can listen to whether they are better at “hoping” or “remembering.”
- Is there a grief that you’re “stuck in”? Take some time to determine if you tend towards “hoping” or “remembering” and brainstorm ways that you could encourage the other side. Let a friend know that you are doing this and invite them to follow up with you.
- How are the students in your ministry answering the question, “Where is God in suffering?”
1. Kenneth R. Mitchell and Herbert Anderson, All our Losses All our Griefs: Resources for Pastoral Care (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 1983) 36-46.
2. Kenneth R. Mitchell and Herbert Anderson, All Our Losses, 51.
3. Jerry Sittser, A Grace Disguised: How the Soul Grows through Loss (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1995), 24-5
4. Jerry Sittser, A Grace Disguised, 29.
5. Kenneth R. Mitchell and Herbert Anderson, All Our Losses, 67
6. Kenneth R. Mitchell and Herbert Anderson, All Our Losses, 138.
7. Elizabeth Kübler-Ross, On Death and Dying: What the dying have to teach doctors, nurses, clergy and their own families (New York: Macmillan Publishing Company, 1969).
8. Two of the most helpful resources in developing this have been Jerry Sittser’s chapter on “Forgive and Remember” in A Grace Disguised and the four tasks of mourning described in William J. Worden, Grief Counseling and Grief Therapy, Third Edition: A Handbook for the Mental Health Practitioner (New York, NY: Springer Publishing Company, 2002), 27, 30.
9. NIrene Cholas Wolterstorff, Lament For a Son (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1987), 74, 75, 81
10. NIV, Isaiah 53:4-5.