Tragedy can be defined as an event that causes great sadness, hurt, destruction, and distress, but the reality we must understand is that tragedy looks different in each of our lives. What might be a tragedy or crisis for one person will look different for another.
However, what we do know about tragedy is that our students are facing it more and more each day, and are emotionally connected to tragedy even if it does not directly affect them. Students today feel more empathetic and sympathetic to what is happening both within their own sphere and from a global perspective. Students understand more, they feel deeper, and they live in a heightened state of fear due to all the horrific events happening in our world.
Because of the emotions and connections, tragedies can be felt even when they aren’t experienced. Students can feel the effects of a school shooting in California or the tsunami that hit in Japan or a suicide in their school in very similar ways. What this means then is that we as their youth leaders, parents, pastors, and adults in their lives must be having very frank conversations about tragedy before, during, and after it happens.
I know this may sound overwhelming because there are moments when we will ask, “How are we equipped to talk about these tragedies, when we don’t even fully understand how to process them ourselves?” I want to offer a few helpful conversation tips, and then to give you some resources to utilize as well.
So how do we engage our students in the conversations surrounding tragedy? Here are couple of tips to help with those conversations:
Begin the conversation sooner than later. It is always better to be proactive than reactive. We live in a very fallen and broken world where we will hear about tragedies constantly on the news, social media, at school, or in a number of other capacities. Talk to your students as they grow and help them to see that our world isn’t perfect, that bad things will happen, but that God is still sovereign and in control.
Point your students back to God and Scripture. Whenever tragedy occurs, typically our response goes to either blaming God or asking God why. Having a good grasp on who God is, His plan for our lives, His vision of this world and our lives with Him, will allow for you to better love, care for, and walk with your students during tragedy.
I do want to say that in the midst of tragedy, do not simply toss out Scripture to gloss over the difficult moments. That tends to be a knee-jerk reaction for many of us. Many of our students know those Scriptures and understand them, but they still are processing and grieving. We need to give them that space, to empathize and sympathize with them, to listen, to love them, and to walk with them as you both look for answers and understanding.
Be available. Students want to be known and heard. Be willing to engage with them, and to go past the surface questions. Don’t settle for “fine” or “okay” as a response. Ask questions that generate meaning and depth of conversation. Instead of “how was your day” or “what is bothering you” ask something like, “what was hard for you today” or “what emotion was strongest for you today?” These types of open ended questions not only allow you to be available physically but show that you are emotionally and mentally present as well. Having someone they can talk to, just be with, and process with is a big part of caring for your students, so make sure to be available.
Look to grow in your own knowledge and understanding. Educate, educate, educate. In order to understand how to care best for your students, seek out resources and equipping to help you better care for them. Utilize some of the resources below, talk to your mentors or other youth pastors, read books, listen to podcasts. The more you know, the better equipped you are to care for your students.
Never minimize how your students are feeling or say that what they experienced isn’t a tragedy. We all feel and process differently, so don’t minimize the situation. This is a form of escapism because we feel ill prepared. Instead validate their feelings, help them to process, walk with them, and being willing to just listen and love them. The greatest gift you can give to someone who has experienced a tragedy is love and time. Be with them. Be wholly present and love them well. A great way to think about this is to ask yourself, “What would I want someone to do for me in a time like this?” Use that as the framework for how you engage with your students.
Build your resources. This is more than just your own knowledge and library. I would encourage you to network, know who the counselors are in your area, talk to the church about their resources, and consider what you can contribute as well. As you build your resources, you become better equipped to handle trauma and tragedy, and you will know when to refer out and seek additional help that may be needed.
Tragedy is a difficult conversation, but one that we must lean into in order to better care for our students. Don’t believe the lies that you are ill-equipped to speak into their lives. Your voice, presence, and love means more than you could ever know, and simply being willing to engage will help them grow and mature in their relationship with you, their peers, and Jesus.
Below are some articles and websites that provide a lot of insight and additional resources to help in your conversations going forward. Thank you for walking these roads with your students.
- How do we process when tragedy hits our nation?
- Good Grief.
- Trauma and grief resources.
- Going back to school after a tragedy.
- Trauma resources.
- I doubt it – making space for hard questions.
- School shootings and other traumatic events: how to talk to students.
- School Violence…Some thoughts.