Four Ways to Interact with Your Students about Grief

Emily Katherine Johnson
May 6th, 2021

This week marks five years since I learned, experientially, how little I knew about grief. I had attended funerals and talked with friends who lost people close to them, but I never faced it personally. I never held a grief so interwoven into my life that its effect scared me and left me feeling out of control. I never knew how much I didn’t know until my Dad was completely alive and a part of my life one day and after a heart attack with no previously diagnosed heart problems, laid lifeless in a hospital. I was a college student studying psychology. I had read books on grief and learned the skills to counsel someone. But I learned in the subsequent days, weeks, and years just how much I didn’t know.

I dove into a deep grief that I had never experienced on that Spring day five years ago. Since that day, I often find myself saying that to love is to grieve. Each of us has known someone who is no longer living. Each of us has watched a dream die, a relationship severe, or an expectation go totally unmet. Grief is a part of the human experience and in my opinion, points the most directly to eternity. That we, as image bearers of God, were never created for a world of loss. We have eternity set in our hearts. Death feels wrong while it is as natural as living. This year, we have been reminded of the fragility of life both due to a pandemic of a physical sickness and pandemic of loneliness with skyrocketing rates of suicide especially amongst our students. 

So how do we interact with the students we love and lead about grief? 

Teach the Bible and Tell Stories. 

It seems many of the rich Bible stories have been reserved for children’s ministry. However, students continue to form their understanding of the world through stories that stick. Read a whole book of the Bible over a series of weeks with students. Talk about the real people and the real things they experienced. There is no way you’ll do this without talking about deep grief.  Like a mother grieving her son as she watched him be crucified, a religious teacher who begged Jesus to come raise his daughter, women who went to a tomb to anoint Jesus’ lifeless body, people ripping their clothes and anointing their heads, and Jesus weeping. We have to show students the people in God’s Word who were significantly less emotionally illiterate than in our society today. People who unabashedly asked Jesus for miracles and unashamedly held their sorrow. 

Have People in Your Church Body Tell Their Stories. 

I keep trying to understand why the Church has moved away from this. We have a whole body of people who have stories of God’s faithfulness, yet we tend to hear from the same 2-3 people every week. The Old Testament church would read the scroll then stand in a circle and exchange stories of God’s faithfulness. This is how students can feel both connected and normalized in their grief as people share. You may have someone share about the grief of losing a child, the grief of abandonment from a Father, the grief of a lost dream after an injury, etc. Having church members share their story not only helps students feel like they belong, but gives them someone to look up to. 

Sit With Them and Don’t Try To Fix It. 

In my first few weeks of grief, one of the most comforting things to me was reading the story of Lazarus dying. The gospels explain that when Jesus came to Bethany after Lazarus had died, Mary and Martha responded two very different ways. Martha went running telling Jesus how he should have done his job better. And Mary, Mary who had believed in Jesus with all of her heart, was so hurt she did not even get up to greet him. Jesus does not shame either response. He walks further and further to the tomb of Lazarus and he weeps. When your students are grieving, don’t tell them what they should and shouldn’t feel. Walk with them. Don’t walk them away from the grief. Walk with them toward it and weep with them there. 

Remember The Hard Days and Talk To Them About It. 

Several thoughtful people have cared for me this way and it has meant the world to me. Not only does a thoughtful text on Father’s Day go a long way, but remembering and holding those hard days gave me space to still feel just as sad and angry 3 years later as I was the day he died. We can love our students by honoring what they are holding and acknowledging the holding is hard, no matter how many years later. We can normalize that the body holds and reminds us of trauma. We can honor them by being one place where their pain is not ignored or pushed aside, but brought to the forefront, because there is room for our pain grief before a Man of Sorrows, well acquainted with grief.  

Emily Katherine Johnson

Emily Katherine works with WinShape College Program equipping college students to make disciples on their campus while also volunteering as a high school small group leader. EmK graduated with her Master of Divinity in Christian Education and loves equipping believers to make disciples in a fun and engaging way. She published "Let's Be Real" her memoir of faith and grief in 2020, the same year she married her husband and best friend during a COVID wedding. You can find blog posts, book reviews, and her schedule for booking at emilykatherinejohnson.com

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