Shootings, death, injuries, suicide, loss, we live in a world where major tragedies happen, and unfortunately, they happen often. Again, unfortunately, this means that we as youth workers have to deal with tragedies and students who have been affected by tragedies.
Dealing with tragedy is extremely difficult, in fact it may be hardest thing we have to do. But it is something we need to discuss because if you haven’t already had to deal with it, it is something you will have to deal with if you stick around in youth ministry. So, what do you do when tragedies strike?
Just this last year I was faced with the most difficult tragedy I have ever had to deal with. Ministry, personal, or anything else this was hands down the hardest. It was a Sunday night and I was sitting on the couch with my wife after putting the kids to bed. I had preached both services that day and was pretty tired and ready to relax. As I was settling in I received a phone call from one of my leaders and was given news that left me breathless and speechless.
She called to tell me that one of my students had died suddenly and completely unexpected. He was 18 years old, healthy, no prior medical history and just about the happiest and most fun-loving student I had ever known. To say he was well liked would be an understatement. He was a freshmen in college who was a super star in high school. He was the prom king, the star of the musical, played multiple sports, and was nice to everyone. When he graduated high school he came on as an intern in my ministry for the summer and the fall semester. He was one of those students who become more than just one of my students, he became a friend.
There was no accident, no self harm, no crime, he just dropped dead suddenly. We found out later that he had an undiagnosed heart condition that led to his heart suddenly stopping without warning.
It was devastating: an absolutely unbelievable, and incomprehensible tragedy. My heart began to beat fast and I felt the blood draining from my face all at once as I held the phone up to my ear. I couldn’t talk, and I could hardly breathe. Right away I knew that I needed to do something, but I had no idea what that something was. No one had ever taught me what to do in this situation. I had no clue how to handle it, there was no course on this in college, and I had never experienced it before. I reached out to some mentors and friends and received tons of prayer. But through dealing with the situation with the family, the church, in the community, and with my students I learned a few things on what to do and how to handle tragic situations. Here is what I learned…
1. Be there
Just be present with the people that are hurting. You may have no clue what to say, and that is fine. Don’t say anything, just be there. Give hugs, place your hand on shoulders, hold hands, sit in silence, cry, be there. I had no idea what to say so I didn’t say anything and that was the best thing I could have said. I was simply present, and what I discovered is that is what spoke the most and spoke exactly what needed to be said.
Be present with people who are hurting in the midst of a tragic situation.
2. Let people know that they are loved by you and by God
Presence speaks. It communicates that you love them and that you are there for them. But it is also nice to be heard. As I hugged and cried with the siblings of the student that had passed away I had no words, but for some reason my mouth opened and I simply said “I love you, and God loves you”. These were not my words, I believe these were the words of the Holy Spirit as He spoke through me and they became the words that I leaned on and passed along to all of the students and adults that I walked with through this tragic time.
Let people know that they are loved, and that God loves them. Let them know that you are there for them and want to walk with them through the tragic time.
3. Continue to be there
Tragedy is busy. When something tragic happens it consumes days and even weeks. There is so much to be done and so much shock to work through, but then the funeral happens, the shock wears off, the “tragic” situation comes to end. But it doesn’t. The pain from loss, death, injury, etc. does not just go away. The busyness of the situation may calm down, but the effects do not. Be there for the people effected by tragedy even after it feels like it is over. Continue to offer support, love, compassion, and steadfastness in their lives.
Tragedy is NOT easy to deal with and there really are no magic words. Remember that God will not give you more than you can handle and He has placed you exactly where He wants you. I hope that these simple things will help you and maybe prepare you (Although, you can never really be prepared) when you have to deal with a tragic situation and be there for students, parents, and people that you can minister to.
If you are facing a situation and would like someone to talk to or prayer please reach out to us we would love to help in any way we can! firstname.lastname@example.org