Naming loss and gratitude with young people in these uncertain days

Brad M. Griffin | Mar 20, 2020

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.

Two lists

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.

Tweet this: 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.

Brad M. Griffin

Brad M. Griffin is the Senior Director of Content for the Fuller Youth Institute (FYI), where he develops research-based training for youth workers and parents. A speaker, blogger, and volunteer youth pastor, Brad is the coauthor of Faith in an Anxious World, Growing Young, several Sticky Faith books, Every Parent’s Guide to Navigating Our Digital World, and the series Can I Ask That?: 8 Hard Questions about God and Faith. Brad and his family live in Southern California.

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