5 Ways To Process Tragedy With Teenagers

Brad M. Griffin | Jul 15, 2016

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.

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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