Naming loss and gratitude with young people in these uncertain days
Photo by Joshua Rawson-Harris
What a difference a week can make. Or even a few hours.
Many of us are looking back at the not-so-distant past and remembering what little time we had to prepare. The flood of information. The contradictory decisions. In my community, our school district decided to stay open—and then reversed within the span of 18 hours. Our kids started the school day with no warning that by the end, they’d be sent home for an indefinite quarantine.
We are feeling it in our household, as I'm sure you are too. For my middle schooler and two high schoolers, the novelty quickly turned into sadness, anger, anxiety, and questions that can't be answered.
Swim meets wiped away.
Baseball season crushed.
A host of senior events canceled, just when being a senior started to get fun.
And that's just naming one loss per child, for just my three kids, for just the past few days. When I look outward to our church and community, the sense of overwhelm comes quickly. Our pastoral team is feeling it. Our team at FYI is feeling it.
In the midst of this moment—which is clearly becoming much more than a moment—we are all in need of practices to help us make meaning from our experiences. While parents are frantically learning how to homeschool and ensuring they have a well-stocked kitchen, our kids are wrestling with their own mixed emotions. And on the ministry front, while our week may have been consumed by figuring out video streaming or moving group gatherings to digital spaces, our students need more than just online youth group. They need help naming and processing their new reality.
In our family, we put up two lists on the wall this week: One says Grateful, the other Loss. We're listing our losses, because naming them is really important. Little things and big things. The cancelled spring break trip. Not getting to go to church. Wondering if graduation will happen.
We're also listing gratitudes. Finding things to be thankful for, and the little surprises of this disruption. Playing guitar again. Watching movies together. Not packing lunches every morning. Having devices to connect with friends.
This practice of naming both losses and gifts is important for a few reasons.
1. Naming loss helps us be honest about grief.
We don’t have to pretend like everything is just fine. We can name what’s lost, and lament it together. We can say, “That’s rough.” We can be sad. We can acknowledge sources of anger and irritability. There are plenty of those sources right now, and more coming.
2. Naming loss keeps us from minimizing or silver-lining.
As a parent, my knee-jerk reaction is to minimize. I find that I have to intentionally practice holding back my “your life isn’t so bad” statements to my privileged middle-class first-world kids. While that sentiment may be true—even now—it’s unhelpful as a first response.
Brené Brown urges us to remove the words “at least” from our vocabulary as we learn to practice empathy. Saying “at least” is a way to try to add a silver lining around a dark-cloud experience. Instead, most of us just want someone else to acknowledge that our experience is sad, and to be with us in our sadness for a while.
This week’s losses might feel pretty minor in a few weeks, but that’s not for us to judge today. We need to see and name the losses for what they are and how we’re all experiencing them. Developmentally, adolescents naturally react to loss more emotionally—some blow up, some shut down. The emotion may not match the experience. You could see anger, tears, or even goofy laughter that seems inappropriate to the moment. Go with it. Then help them name the loss that they’re feeling.
3. Naming gratitude prevents us from drowning in sorrow.
We can be honest about what’s hard without getting stuck. I think this is going to become a real challenge in the coming days and months. Finding things to be thankful for is a research-proven practice that can help young people, and all of us, manage both daily struggles and bigger challenges.
Experts tell us that practicing gratitude can increase positive emotions, sleep quality, and overall well-being. At the very least, naming a positive thing about our day can help us mitigate some of the loss. There’s no need to try to cancel out all the sadness by manufacturing gratitude, but it’s important to find something that is going right in our lives when all feels wrong.
Practical ideas and tips for naming losses and gratitude
1. Make your lists
Maybe you want to suggest the “two lists” idea to families in your ministry, or put some paper on your own walls at home (this one works for all ages!) Locate the lists somewhere central where everyone will walk by them every day—and since no one’s coming to visit for a while, you can do this without exposing anyone’s feelings publicly. Keep a pen nearby to make it easy to add a thought in passing.
2. Share around the table
You might be thinking, “This is just another version of sharing highs and lows at dinner.” You’re right. I find that dinner lately is a weird mix of sharing what we’ve heard on the news, venting about all the changes with school, talking over each other (okay, we have five extroverts so this happens anyway), and pent-up anger unleashed on a sibling or parent (or child!) In short, we’re just too chaotic right now for this practice.
In contrast, the lists are just there. Sometimes we might talk about a note we added to the list at the table, but if we don’t, it still gets named and noticed. We can also add to a list whenever we feel a loss or a gratitude, which isn’t always at dinner.
That said, sharing highs and lows—or “oil and sand,” as we do in our youth group—is still a great practice for focused moments with family or virtual ministry gatherings.
3. Start journaling
For those who aren’t likely to share out loud, journaling can work well. Last weekend I suggested to my kids that the “Coronavirus quarantine of 2020” might be a significant experience to journal about, both to help process now as well as to remember later and share with the next generation. One kid regularly journals already, a second liked the idea, and I think the third is going to skip it. That’s fine. Just like verbal processing, journaling doesn’t work for everyone, so be careful not to make this another “should.”
Propose writing on paper. Only a week ago, it would have felt strange to suggest that more screen time was even possible given how much teenagers already use devices, but their entire world has now migrated digitally. In light of how much extra time students have to look at screens for school and social interaction, writing by hand may be a welcome alternative. The prayer of Examen can be a useful set of prompts to help someone new to journalling get started.
4. Help identify feelings.
Teenagers are classically bad at naming feelings—their own or others’. More accurately, they are novices working with brains and bodies undergoing massive renovation. Therapists often use lists of feeling words to help young people find a feeling that matches their experience and give it a name.
Print out or send a link to a list of feeling words (a quick online search yields numerous examples) and ask each person to choose one or two words that best represent what they’ve felt today or this week.
5. Grieve the calendar.
Rather than deleting every canceled event for kids, family, and ministry from my digital calendar, I am leaving them, at least for now. When the notification about the swim meet comes through (as it did while wrapping up this post), I can notice it and remember that if it makes me sad, it’s likely bringing another wave of grief to my freshman who would have started her first high school swim season. She may not bring it up, but I can be attentive to today’s loss. It’s also a reminder to pray for each kid in turn.
This may become overwhelming after a while, but I’m giving it a try. Looking at your own calendar, what are you grieving? What do you think the young people around you are missing today or this week? Consider whether reaching out might help them navigate the losses as the days and missed events come and go.
6. Look for a win.
I don’t think we should jump too quickly to try to replace every lost opportunity with another, but it’s worth thinking about small wins. Some manufactured alternatives are going to be lame. Virtual prom? Not so sure. But if a musician can pull off a recital in your living room, or milestones can be celebrated with special at-home dinners with favorite desserts, look for those wins.
Canceled retreats or youth group events are challenging to substitute, but perhaps students can brainstorm a cluster of digital options to connect, play games, and laugh together from a distance.
Preparing for the long haul
The coming weeks and months will offer a lot to navigate with students. That doesn’t make their current experiences any less important. We can be real about honoring the losses felt right now while also preparing for a long work ahead.
How are you acknowledging losses and recognizing gratitude as you walk with young people through this season?