Over the years, death has impacted our student ministry several times. Recently, Tim (not his real name), one of the students who had been in my group on a Mexico trip, was killed in a car accident. After his death, I joined in the effort to reach out to his friends.
Rather than telling the story of his death, I thought I'd share a few things I learned through that experience. Here are four basic ways I found my efforts to reach out to his friends to be helpful.
1. Be present. Although I knew Tim, I didn't know many of his friends. Meeting them outside the hospital emergency room was very awkward for me. I had no idea what to do, but I knew it was important to the students for me to be there. It turns out my presence at the hospital created a connection later when they saw me again at the church. Becoming a familiar face helped open lines of communication between them and me.
2. Give them the opportunity to talk. My instinct was to stand there quietly and awkwardly because I was so unsure about how to approach students in so much pain. They didn't know me, so I didn't feel like it was my place to intrude in their group at such a tragic time. Because I didn't know what to say or do, I asked the students to tell me how they knew Tim. Some sobbed, and others laughed as they told me about great memories they had with him. They welcomed the opportunity to tell me about their friend. As it turns out, asking them about Tim was the best thing I could have done. It gave them a chance to talk about their feelings and begin the long journey of grief.
3. Follow up. Many of Tim's friends started attending our church as a result of this experience. The students I met at the hospital and funeral were easily recognizable because they were wearing shirts memorializing him. In the first week or two, I asked them how they were coping. As time passed by, I transitioned to questions about other areas of their lives apart from their grief over Tim. By following up, our bond continued to strengthen and I could help them make the transition from grief to taking the next steps in their faith and other areas of life.
4. Don't preach to them or try to get them to accept Christ in the initial encounter. Some of you may strongly disagree with that statement, but Jesus modeled meeting needs before commanding life-change. There was a powerful challenge at Tim's funeral for the congregation of students to evaluate their lives and make sure Tim's death impacted their response to God's gift of salvation. However, in the days between Tim's death and funeral, my goal was to build bridges to help students process their grief. Through those newly formed relationships, the natural next step would be to dedicate their lives to Christ.
There's no fixed set of rules for dealing with a life lost at such an early age. If a student in your ministry passes away, you may find that you need to take a completely different approach. The key is to take an approach.
As a youth worker (volunteer or paid), you have an important role when tragedy strikes. I hope my experiences can be helpful to you if your ministry has to deal with such a loss. Your readiness to help could make an eternal difference in the lives of grief-stricken students.