This week a teenager in our student ministry was tragically killed in a car accident. This post is specifically for all of the Katy, Texas area parents trying to help their teenagers deal with a traumatic situation. I pray that it might also help parents, teachers, pastors, and youth workers who need to lead teenagers through “the valley of the shadow of death.”
Death is no stranger in Houston, Texas. Just watch the news tonight and you will learn of atrocities, crimes, and accidents, that occurred all over our city today resulting in death for someone. Sometimes what seems like distant news on most evenings hits too close to home as was the case this week for Katy area teenagers. The death of another teenager, especially a friend or family member, has a profound impact in any community. Students struggle for answers and seek to cope. As adults involved in the lives of teenagers we can help them deal with the reality of death.
Here are a few suggestions:
- Be available: Certainly life is busy. In the face of death, teenagers need a person to depend on. Parents need to intentionally slow down and make themselves available. Just be around. Grief is not something that can be scheduled. Most teenagers will start talking when they are ready. That might be late at night or early in the morning. The most important thing you can do is to be there at the right time. Since teenagers instantly turn to their own peers for answers, allow your home to be the place students can hang out together in this time of sadness. Keep the cookies coming and just be there. Don’t be too busy to be with your teenager during a very confusing time.
- Listen: The best thing you can do as a parent or youth leader is to listen. Minimize the distractions in your life and take the time to listen to them. Be patient and don’t force conversation. When they are ready to talk… listen. Look them in the eyes and give them freedom to process their feelings. Try not to talk much at all. Instead take mental note of everything the teenager is saying. Are they mad or sad? Are they confused and hurt? Do they fear their own mortality. Listen with concern and a desire to empathize. Offer hugs and security. Even though they look more grown up they often feel like a lost child when thinking about death.
- Answer their questions biblically: When you do provide answers avoid what I call “religious cheese.” Statements like “She’s in a better place.” or “God must have wanted her home.” Just a side note. We cannot blame death on God. Saying something like “God just wanted her home” implies that God is a murderer and a puppet master. If you don’t know the answer to a question simply say, “I don’t know.” Don’t make things up in an attempt to comfort. Avoid that religious garbage and instead offer biblical answers. One of my favorite passages to show people in the midst of anguish over death is 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18. Here is the first part. “But we do not want you to be uninformed brothers about those who are asleep that you may not grieve as others do who have no hope. For since we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so, through Jesus, God will bring with him those who have fallen asleep. For this we declare to you by a word from the Lord, that we who are alive, who are left until the coming of the Lord will not precede those who have fallen asleep.” Read the rest of the passage today. You will find answers to many common questions associated with death.
- Give them room to feel: It is important to give teenagers permission to feel deeply. Different personalities deal with emotions in unique ways. Some people talk openly or cry freely. Others internalize and want to be alone. Still others want to cry but can’t. Let them feel what they are feeling and don’t force a particular way of expressing that emotion. If your teenager internalizes don’t immediately conclude he is suicidal. Occasionally offer your presence and listening ear. He will talk when He is ready. If your teenager is open with her feelings sit and listen. Do not tell her how to feel. Acknowledge her feelings as perfectly legitimate and give her positive ways to express those feelings. Someone who internalizes might do well to write about how they are feeling. Someone who is experience intense anger benefits from running, screaming, or hit a punching bag. Others who are sad need to weep. These are valid emotional responses. Give them room to feel what they feel and gently coach them to express. Sometimes Christians think everyone should have the magical “peace that passes understanding.” In anguish and suffering sometimes Jesus, the prince of peace, just holds us as we strongly feel emotion. He created us with emotions. Don’t stifle that process.
- Know where to go for help: As a parent or a youth leader of any type, know where to go if you need help. You may sense that a teenager is in trouble and is spiraling downward emotionally. You probably know your teenager better than anyone. If you sense they need help beyond what you can offer, know where to go to find the assistance you need. Your church is a great starting point. Many pastors can help and they are typically connected with counselors who can offer professional therapy. In the Katy area you are welcome to call my office, 281.492.0785 and speak to me or to any of our counselors on staff if you need some help. Know that I am praying for you as you shepherd the hearts of teenagers all over this community.
In just a few hours we will host a funeral for 16 year old Taylor Contreras at Kingsland. Our students are hurting and her family is devastated. Please pray for them. Some students from Morton Ranch High School posted a tribute to Taylor on Youtube. Watch it here and pray for her family and the many teenagers who are connected to her relationally.