5 Levels To Navigating A Tragedy As A Youth Worker

Tim Balow
September 6th, 2019

It was your average weekend. I had just gotten back from watching one of my students perform in a high school musical. My wife and I had just tucked the kids in bed and were starting to watch a movie when the call came. Justin had just committed suicide. One of our group leaders was already over with the family. She was in tears. I drove to their house as quickly as I could. The street was filled with emergency vehicles and the police had taped off the house and a section of the street. Neighbors were out in their robes, watching from their porches. I met with the officers, a fire department chaplain arrived, and we went in together to be with the family. It was horrible. It was emotional. It was tragic.

Let’s step back for a second. I’ve been in ministry for a decade now and one of my biggest motivations was to help hurting people. The tragic death of a son and a brother is the epitome of grief and pain. Still, nothing ultimately prepares you for that moment where you cross under that police tape and sit with a family that has lost someone they love. Classes can give you great information, but nothing prepares you for how overwhelming is the experience.

My hope is that you never have to experience tragedy to this extent in your ministry. Sadly, it is highly likely, that in the course of your ministry you’ll experience more than one of these types of traumatic events. Providing care for the affected family is vitally important. There are great resources available to help families grieve, receive ongoing counseling, and begin to pick up the pieces from a tragic loss of life. More communities are realizing that grief isn’t a short term thing, but is a long-term effort. In the aftermath of Justin’s death, I have been continually amazed at how the community has become a spiritual family to each other. What I’d like to offer you as you read this, is a guide, or a few insights, into how you can navigate tragedy and not destroy yourself in the meantime.

Here are a few things that I’ve learned as I look back:

1. It’s Long and Exhausting

The night Justin died, I didn’t get home until 2:30 a.m. It was excruciating. The police had to take statements from family members, they had to wait for the coroner to arrive; and after all that, there is nowhere to go, and nothing to do but grieve. It is like everyone in the room is caught in limbo and seems to linger forever.

I had church the next morning and youth group that evening. In the course of that week, I planned the funeral, coordinated burial details, met with other family members, and helped coordinate community members as they brought meals and other comforts to the family. Not to mention a three-hour visitation, a memorial service, a graveside, and I was already scheduled to preach that following Sunday.  Tragedy doesn’t fit into your schedule, even if it did, it would still leave a path of devastation.

You don’t fully realize, until you are in it, that one of the difficulties of something like this is that everything in your normal life still goes on as you try and handle this horrible reality. It is physically, mentally and emotionally draining. In the back of your head, you’ll hear a voice that says, “Yeah you are tired, you are worn out, but you aren’t the one that just lost a brother, a son.” That’s difficult because it makes you feel like your grief and exhaustion isn’t important. That’s dangerous, because you are ignoring what your body and soul are telling you. You might be able to survive the moment, but can spell disaster in your personal life down the road. Make sure you are still eating, sleeping, and doing things that restore your soul. You may only have brief opportunities to do that, but make sure you don’t miss them.

2. Small Talk Becomes Really Difficult

All the surface things you are in the habit of saying at the start of conversations, or as you leave, can seem inappropriate and ill-fitting. When you meet with the family, with classmates, or with community friends, you find yourself saying things like, “How are you doing?” or, “How’s your day?”  Other people around you will find themselves stumbling over the same phrases. Sometimes, everyone will get quiet and just look at the carpet for a while.

Don’t get me wrong. You shouldn’t ignore how other people are doing in this time. It is vital that you continually find out, “How are you doing?” But you are gonna have to find other ways to do that. Be ready, as you start conversations, to use other questions that allow people to tell you how they are doing. Questions like, “How’d you sleep last night?” or “Has anybody stopped by today?” are simple ways to allow people to start sharing how they are doing. There is a raw and exposed nerve in every conversation you have, and quite often you’ll talk around it and/or accidentally bump into it. In those moments there will be tears, memories that bring laughter, more tears, and sometimes silence.

Our culture is used to a lot of small talk, but small talk doesn’t work very well in these moments. Be ready to start real conversations that require focus, discernment, and active listening. Start conversations deliberately and be prepared for those moments of unexpected grief.

3. Strangers Will Contact You So They Can Grieve

This one really surprised me. I spent hours on my phone the week after Justin died. I felt like I was constantly charging it, because it simply would not stop ringing. Complete strangers would call me, introduce themselves, and begin pouring out their hearts and story of how they were affected. The first few calls caught me off guard. By the third or fourth time, I had learned that people just needed someone to listen to them grieve. They needed someone to let them ask why. Teachers, relatives, neighbors and people from church would call at all times of the day because they wanted and needed to talk.

For a few of them, I recommended that they get connected with a counselor. For others, I just encouraged them to keep doing what they were doing. There were others that I just listened to, and at the end of the conversation, I prayed with them. In the midst of tragedy, the church becomes a rock for a lot of people and they will seek you out. Don’t be surprised when your phone starts ringing. Give people permission to talk and share their feelings. When appropriate, I would encourage you to be transparent and speak some of your feelings to them. It will help them and it will help you too.

4. Your family and friends are vital

As I said earlier, navigating these tragedies are exhausting in every area of your life. You automatically start burning your candle at both ends. One of the first things to get pushed out of your life is the time you spend with your friends and family. I went to my wife the day after we lost Justin and told her, “This week is going to be crazy and I am gonna be all over the place. The biggest way you can support me is by helping me to be mentally and emotionally present with you and our boys whenever I am at home this week.”

I’m so glad we had that conversation. I only spent a handful of hours at home that week. When I was home though, that time was spent eating as a family, wrestling with my boys in the living room, and sharing a cup of coffee and conversation with my wife. Those moments were medicine for my soul. In retrospect, my wife said those moments let her know just how important she and the boys were to me.

A lot of people will ask you how you are doing and how the affected family is doing. I mean a LOT of people will ask. 100% of them are well-meaning, but most of them don’t realize how many times you’ve had to answer that question, and that you really don’t have the opportunity in a quick conversation to even begin to share how everyone is doing. This sort of jaded me at different points.

That’s when my friends and church family came through in a big way. A handful of times, one of them would come to me and say, “How are you doing?” After a short response on my part, they would ask again, “No really. How are you doing?” Those moments were therapeutic for me. They kept my heart from building up dangerous scar tissue. Other people in my life would say things like, “Hey, I know life is crazy now, and I know that means that you are really vulnerable to making bad choices.” They were right on too. You’ll discover that your friends know you and are able to perform spiritual triage on you in these moments. Lean into those conversations and those moments.

5. Seize Every Opportunity to Love and Encourage Everyone Else

Lastly, after an experience like this, you are going to be incredibly sensitive to the needs and feelings of people around you. You’ll begin to see people around you and in your ministry in a completely different light. Experiencing tragedy can make you more in-tune to the pain and suffering of others. Take full advantage of that. Take the extra time to stop and check in with people you know need some extra TLC. Encourage the parents who worry that their son or daughter will never move beyond their depression or anxiety. Encourage the students you see dragging on Sunday night. Give hugs whenever you think it’s a good opportunity. Go out of your way to compliment and encourage your students for even the smallest things. You won’t regret it.

In the midst of tragedy, you run to those who are hurting and do your best to heal and protect. In those moments your heart is especially vulnerable. Be ready to need some care yourself and have a plan in place to make sure you don’t attempt to move on with business as usual.

You’ll discover that enduring a tragedy alters your perspective forever. In some ways it is subtle, while in others it is drastic. Find people to talk to about those changes. Journal through it, pray through it, and be sure to allow yourself time to grieve. In my experience, when the funeral was over and things started to calm down, I went and had lunch with my dad who is also a pastor. I told him he was my counselor. I said it as a joke, but it was true.

As I get more and more distance from this most recent tragedy, I am finding that life is different. I miss Justin. I am so torn up for his family and can’t imagine what they continue to endure. I also hug my boys a lot longer. I share a lot more of my feelings with my wife. My perspective on ministry continues to grow as well. God has placed us in peoples’ lives for moments like this. Leadership is helping people navigate life. That includes the tragedies. Be ready to be Jesus in those moments.

Due to the sensitive nature of this post, the author has requested to remain anonymous. Please join us in praying for this youth worker and the families in his/her church who were affected by this tragedy.

Tim Balow

Youth Specialties exists to elevate the role of youth ministry and the youth worker to grow the faith of the next generation.

Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in the YS Blog are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the opinion or position of YS.