Responding to the death of a teen when you are the new kid on the block

     It's been a crazy week and half. A 17 year old boy in our youth ministry suddenly and unexpectedly passed away on St. Patrick's Day.  This has thrown our youth group upside down, dismantled any sense of normal, and catapulted a lot of families into a time of stopping everything they were doing and taking time to heal and be together. Our Middle School Pastor has been in the thick of it as she has been present and available to be with the little sister of the young man we lost. Still new to this bunch of teens and families, I tip toed my way through their grief. Being present, giving space when needed, and looking around for hurting teens, staff, and parents to be there for. There is no shortage of pain around the loss of a young life, and I found many ways to serve, even as a somewhat outsider.
      If you ever find yourself as the brand new youth pastor or an interim pastor who gets the call...the call we all dread of an unexpected crisis, I have a few tips for you. Whether it's a student barely clinging to life in a hospital from not wearing a skateboard helmet, a broken leg from playing chicken in the high school parking lot, a parent who takes their own life, or a sudden loss of a teen through accident or disaster, I've seen it all. The sad advantage of being in youth ministry for the long haul (+15 years) is I am no stranger to loss.  I am not a grief expert, nor a licensed counselor, but I've seen enough in youth ministry and life to offer some advice:

1) When in doubt, don't listen to the doubt.
There are times when your fear and self doubt kick in. Tragedy can bring out your wimpy insecurities or your fearlessness. I choose fearlessness. Do not wimp out. Show up. Be present. If in the back of your mind you think "they don't really want me here" don't listen to that. Be there anyways. You can never love too much. People may not notice you were there, but they will notice if you are not. It's not about you anyways. Just show up. Show up at the hospital, to the house, to the school where teens are congregating to pray and be together.  Don't wait to be invited, just...show up!

2) Find the point person.
Chances are, you are likely not the point person. In every tragedy, loss, disaster or health crises, there is a point person.  Look for the aunt, mom, sister, brother, parent, neighbor, friend, deacon, or associate pastor who is sending the email updates, sheltering the bereaved, scheduling meals, helping with the memorial service details, answering the phone, updating the Facebook or Caringbridge page. There is always a point person. Find them. See what they need. Ask how they are doing.  Find out what you can do and how you can best help.

3) Do the little things.
Being the new (and temporary) youth pastor on staff, I made sure to be present, to be visible, to be available, while giving space to the teens who don't really know me and who are still adjusting to their old youth pastor leaving. In every crisis there are lots of little things to get done. Any crisis certified chaplain will tell you it's often the little things which help most. Take out the trash, offer a blanket, bring donuts, buy coffee for your staff, bring dinner. In crisis, the little things show love just as much as the big things.

4) We are all on the same team.
If you are a new youth worker on staff, it's likely the former youth pastor will return to be with the youth group after the loss of one of their former youth group kids. Be on the same team, because you are! The teens will likely look to that person for comfort, support, and to be involved in the service. Be glad. We are all family and we need each other in times like this. Encourage and enable them to care for students.

5) Look for new kids.
Tragedy and disaster bring everyone out of the woodwork. Look for the kid standing against the wall who is new and showed up because the loss, even though it's wasn't their loss, stirred up some questions, pain, and a sense of "it could have been me."  There will be kids and parents who are not directly involved in the situation, who may not even know the family, who are impacted by the magnitude of a crisis striking so close to home.  Standing in the living room of a youth group family, I was able to meet a high school senior who came with a friend.  She didn't know the boy who had passed away, and she didn't really know anyone, but she came with her friend and was standing there by herself against a wall. Loss stirs up emotions and leaves everyone, no matter how close they are to the tragedy, a little raw and vulnerable. There are plenty of people to care for.  Be there and listen.

6) Equip and care for your staff.
It's the long time volunteer youth staff who know the kids better than you do (if you are new). They have most likely been with the youth group before you were there, and before the former youth pastor too. Enlist past and present youth volunteers who are familiar faces to the teens in your ministry. Have them show up to love, hug, pray and be with students in your ministry. You can care for your staff by sending them encouraging notes or text messages. Buy them coffee. Let them know you are praying for them and ask if they need anything. Bring in a licensed counselor to coach your team on how to help teens through the grief process.  It's likely to be the volunteers in your ministry who will play a vital role in helping the youth group through loss.

7) Pray!
On the way to the hospital, on the way home, before and after every home visit, youth group service, memorial service, and each moment in between PRAY! Pray for the family directly impacted by the loss. They are the ones who for the rest of their lives are most impacted by what has happened. They are the ones who will ultimately need long term love, support, and checking in on. Pray for them and pray for God to show you how to best help them from now and from now on.

Need more resources for helping a youth group through loss?
Check these out:
Responding to the Death of a Teen (Catholic Youth Ministry)
Emergency Response Handbook (Group Publishing)
Youth Workers Guide to Helping Teenagers in Crisis (Youth Specialties)
Chaplain Training/Resources (professional chaplains.org)
How to Help a Grieving Teen (Dougy.org)
Dealing With Death/Loss (Your Teen.org)

Philippians 4:13
I can do all things through him who strengthens me.


  1. Especially the bring them coffee one!! Great resources as well


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