5 Ways To Process Tragedy With Teenagers

Discovering hope in times of despair

Photo by Joshua Earle

“Suffering is not optional.” —Desmond Tutu

These somber words perhaps strike us differently in the aftermath of this month’s events, though spoken from a leader who witnessed decades of violence, trauma, and terrorism in his own context. Tutu goes on to suggest, “Our suffering can become a spirituality of transformation when we understand that we have a role in God’s transfiguration of the world.”

We’ve been reminded at FYI that the impact of the trauma our country and globe have sustained in recent weeks will be deep and enduring. When systemic injustices combine with local-level reactions, the combustion blazes beyond our control. Those of us who follow Jesus find ourselves asking very serious questions. How could this happen? Can God still be good? Who can we trust? How can we ever feel safe? Perhaps you’ve heard questions like this in your ministry or your home in recent weeks as the general level of fear and unease has risen.

While we find ourselves at a loss for adequate words to respond to the complexities at hand, we wanted to offer a few resources for helping young people process trauma and tragedy, whether experienced locally or through the media.

 

Pray and sing laments to God

“Why are you so far off? Why have you hidden your face from me?”

Common spiritual reactions to tragedy include anger at God, questioning God, and struggling to trust God. The most appropriate response to these kinds of reactions is to lament. Lament is a God-given tool to pray and worship our way through pain and tragedy. While uncomfortable and sometimes awkward to read, the psalms of lament (there are over 65 of them) in the Bible give us language for crying out to God in ways we might not normally find acceptable. That’s exactly why they’re preserved for us.

In response to traumatic experiences, it is critically important for a community of faith to offer space for this kind of response to God. As youth workers, we may fear taking students to those places of doubt, anger, and disappointment with God. However, failing to create an environment for authentic lament can result in spiritually and psychologically short-circuiting the necessary healing process. We have the opportunity to offer the hope of Christ and his re-orienting power to lives that have been plunged into trauma and disorientation.

Incorporating lament into your ministry takes careful thought, but does not have to be elaborate. Perhaps you could start by taking time in your next worship service for a reading of Psalm 88, 80, 61, 13, or 10. Ask reflection questions like, “Is it okay to say these kinds of things to God? Where could this kind of prayer go from here?” Then read through the psalm again and invite students to journal or draw their own continuing prayer for a few minutes. Afterwards talk through their feelings of comfort or discomfort in approaching God that way.

Last week in our church’s worship we sang several songs of lament and then prayed prayers that invited people to name specific African American friends, family members, and coworkers, asking God to free them from fear and protect them from harm.  

 

Listen to voices that are not like yours

After Michael Brown’s death in Ferguson, Missouri, two summers ago, African American pastor Bryan Loritts wrote, “We will never experience true Christian unity when one ethnicity demands of another that we keep silent about our pain and travails. The way forward is not an appeal to the facts as a first resort, but the attempt to get inside each other’s skin as best as we can to feel what they feel, and understand it.” In other words, we cannot hope to understand or have empathy until we stop to listen.

Listening locally is vital. Listening on a national level can also help increase our understanding. Last weekend FYI’s Mary Glenn, an instructor in our Urban Youth Ministry program and local police chaplain and chaplain trainer, was part of a panel for HopeMob with three African American ministry leaders. Mary shared her sense that fear and tension are tangible in many communities right now. As a result, we tend to categorize others and keep them at a distance to deal with our fear. Michelle Higgins of Faith for Justice notes that often in this fear we fail to acknowledge the humanity of the other. Through misconception and miscommunication, we dehumanize both victim and perpetrator of violence. Instead, “seeing the image of God in other humans is at the center of all reconciliation.”

This week, encourage young people around you to listen to someone who is different, and to hear them first as an image-bearer of God.

 

Go there

A few years back, Fuller alum Brenda Salter McNeil, an advocate for reconciliation and healing, spoke at a conference at Fuller. I re-watched her message this week, and share it as an encouragement for us here.

Speaking about Jesus’ interactions with a Samaritan woman in John 4, Brenda maintains that our credibility is determined by the places we will and won’t go. We can prove ourselves competent by our skills, but other people determine our credibility as witnesses of Christ in the world. Our “with-ness” with others who are different gives us credibility to be witnesses for God. She goes on to suggest that this journey changes us. “If we take the trip, we become witnesses, we become more of who God wants us to be.” I wonder where those places are in our own communities, and who those people are. Young people can often point out our divisions with more accuracy than we might wish. Help them go there. Then wonder together how things might be different.

 

Look for signs of post-traumatic stress

It’s possible that recent events have left some young people in your community experiencing post-traumatic stress, even if their experiences are vicarious (for example, watching a video of a traumatic event on social media). Symptoms include feeling hopeless, numb, on guard or scared, having trouble sleeping or eating, or other physical distress. Dr. Cynthia Eriksson, a trauma specialist in Fuller’s School of Psychology, once offered these suggestions for pastoral care we can offer to young people experiencing post-traumatic stress:

We need to let them express whatever is going on in their minds in terms of their relationship with God. Our pastoral tendency is to come in with some sort of answer, to help people not doubt anymore. However, the most important first step is to be heard, even if what needs to be said are horrible thoughts toward God. Let go of the need to be a theological educator and stay in the moment in a pastoral place with that person. Acknowledge that it’s often hard to see God in the midst of those experiences. 

If we turn to someone in the midst of doubt and say, “God is going to get you through this,” we risk the possibility of the person feeling guilty or judged for not being able to hold onto that hope themselves. I’ll never forget when I discovered Psalm 88. It doesn’t end with professions of God’s faithfulness, but rather something like, “I’m going to die”. There are moments in life where we do not see the hopeful side, and it seems impossible to hold on to God’s goodness. For many, it might take a long time to see God in the midst of what happened. For someone in a pastoral role, the most caring thing is to hear the doubts and not try to “fix” the person or convince him or her otherwise.

If signs of post-traumatic stress linger more than a couple of weeks, it’s a good idea to help the young person find professional help to process their experiences.

 

Point to signs of hope

I find that it can be easy to fall into continual criticism of others’ responses to tragedy. We quickly critique and condemn both action and inaction, both vocalized protest and silence. In the fog of opinions swirling about us, it can be helpful to look for beacons of hope cutting through the mist.

For example, Sojourners ran an article last week listing ways predominantly white churches and denominations are responding to racially-charged violence in notable and in some cases tangible ways. If the Southern Baptist Church can vote to discontinue the use of the Confederate flag in solidarity with African Americans and as a sign of Christian witness, that’s a sign of hope we can name. If Black Lives Matter and All Lives Matter protesters in Dallas can cross a street to join forces and pray, that’s a sign of hope. The cynic in each of us can certainly poke holes through any of these examples, but instead let’s grab fragments of hope wherever we can find them, and point to the Spirit of God on the move bringing reconciliation.

Mr. Rogers always suggested that in the wake of tragedy or other scary events, we should encourage children to “look for the helpers.” Adolescents and adults need this reminder as much as kids. Who’s helping? Who’s caring for victims in Nice? Who’s leading compassionate ministries around the corner in our neighborhood? These signs of hope can inspire us all to action.

 

In these days, you may find your own soul searching the mystery of tragedy and suffering. In his Lament for a Son, Nicholas Wolterstorff offers:

“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. … Instead of explaining our suffering God shares it.

Yes, God shares our suffering. While we help process tragedy with the young people around us, let’s keep pointing to that mystery as we hope for the day when this same God will make all things new.

 

More resources:

National Center for PTSD –resources for identifying and responding to post-traumatic stress

Good Grief –insights on helping ourselves and others work through loss and grief

Your Pain: Six Lenses to Help –How the way we view God in the midst of pain and tragedy shapes our response

Does Your Heart Break –a song of lament by The Brilliance addressing pain and tragedy including racial violence (“Brother” is also a reconciliation song we have used in our congregation).

Helping teenagers make sense of inequality .. without making peace with it

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