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Robin Williams, Teen Suicide, and the Church

Robin WilliamsTeens and students everywhere struggle with depression and teen suicide is on the rise, sort of.  In the wake of Robin Williams’ death, conversations about suicide and depression abound.  I have counselled a number of teens contemplating suicide, and an even larger number of teens struggling with depression.

Since 1991 the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reports that annually, the number of teens contemplating suicide has dropped, from 29% to 17%, while the number of teens actually attempting suicide have gradually increased, from 7.3% to 8%.  Take note; 17% is nearly one in five teens.  Let’s put that in perspective.  For every ten teenagers active in your church’s youth ministry, two of them will contemplate suicide this year.

For every ten teenagers active in your church’s youth ministry, two of them will contemplate suicide this year.

 

The CDC also reports that suicide is the number three cause of teen death in America, followed by homicide and accidents.  Student ministers should have a plan for ministering to suicidal teens and their families, because if you stay in youth ministry long enough, a teen will confide in you that they have hurt themselves, or have thought about suicide.  So how should youth leaders and volunteers respond?

The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline (USA) has some great tips that all youth workers should take to heart.  This list is adapted from their full list of tips, which can be found here.  When a teen mentions suicide or exhibits signs they may be suicidal:

  1. Be direct.  Do not change the subject.  Do not appear uncomfortable or act shocked.  Speak matter-of-factly and be open to hearing everything the teen has to say.  Many teens are an open book, especially if they trust you.  They have extremely high B.S. meters, and can tell if you are not being direct.  If a teen comes to you and wants to discuss hurting himself or suicide, give them (and their conversation) the seriousness and frankness they deserve.
  2. Listen.  Many times a mention of suicide is a plea for help itself.  The teen came to you!  They want to talk, and more important Helpthan any advice you could give them, you can give them your undivided attention.  I had a teen approach me with suicidal thoughts one time and instead of starting Bible study on time, I gave more time to our conversation.  I had a parent volunteer who was irate that I didn’t start the lesson on time and that Bible study was only ten minutes that evening, but my conversation with the potentially suicidal teen took priority.
  3. No secrets. Never guarantee confidence in a conversation when a student’s safety is on the line.  Their parents have a right to know if the teen is threatening to hurt themselves, and once a teen has mentioned suicide, you have a responsibility to try and seek out help for the student.
  4. Take Action.  When a student says they are going to hurt themselves, parents should be notified in a loving and calm way.  Telling a parent that their teen is contemplating suicide is one of the most uncomfortable and heartbreaking conversations a youth minister can have.  Parents will exhibit a variety of emotions, like failure, denial, and even anger.  Suggest agencies and organizations in your area equipped to handle crisis intervention and suicide prevention.  If the student comes from an abusive home, contact the agencies directly on the student’s behalf.
  5. Offer them sincere hope.  Depression is no joke.  The home lives of students are no joke.  Bullying is no joke.  Anxiety over sexuality is no joke.  Any one of these factors (and many more) can potentially lead to suicidal thoughts.  As Christian mentor, you may have the great privilege and responsibility of reminding a teen that they are loved by you and by the Lord.  You can remind them that God is constantly present.  You can read some scripture together, and you can pray with them.  Most importantly, never gloss over their pain by saying things like “just give your sadness over to Jesus,” or “God wants you to be happy,” or “living in defeat is a sin.”  The only thing these statements to is mask our own discomfort.

The National Suicide Prevention Hotline is 1-800-273-TALK (8255), and I have passed it out to an entire youth group before, knowing the three kids I was really targeting.  Suicide is a serious topic and it effects too many teens for the church to not take note and speak out.  How have you addressed suicide with your students and parents?  Please share your ideas and experiences in the comments below.

Five Do’s and Don’ts for Ministry With Grieving Teens

grieving familyGrief can be hard to comprehend for anyone. This is especially true for adolescents. There is a very good chance that an adolescent experiencing grief due to loss or tragedy is experiencing true grief for the first time in their life. Grief is most often an emotional response that comes from some deep personal loss. For a teenager, grief may arise due to the divorce of parents, the loss of a friend, or the death of a grandparent, parent or sibling. The most common cause of grief is the death of a loved one or friend, which most adolescents have yet to experience. Grief can be a scary, overwhelming experience that leaves people struggling with feelings of anger, guilt, helplessness, fear and anxiety, loneliness and abandonment, depression, and even relief.[i] Grief is not just feeling blue, but rather a roller-coaster of emotions that takes months to process. Here are a few tips for providing pastoral care for teenagers and their families when a death has occurred.

Five Do’s

  1. Do provide loving presence. Mark Twain once wrote “I didn’t attend the funeral, but I sent a nice letter saying I approved of it.”[ii] Avoiding a teen or family in mourning because of our own insecurities is a challenge for many ministers to overcome. Grieving people need the support of caring individuals who simply provide a listening ear and a shoulder to cry on. Everyone is uncomfortable when tragic loss strikes a family but as pastoral care providers, ministers and lay leaders should comfort the family rather than avoid them. It is important to realize that “acknowledgement of their loss is what they need.”[iii] A hug, a hand on a shoulder, sitting together in silence, praying, listening, crying together and remembering happy memories of the deceased are all ways of providing presence. Remember, in a pastoral sense, you are the comforting presence of God to a grieving person. Words and cliché’s are not adequate or helpful, but your calm assuring presence is.
  2. Do help provide hospitable care for the teen and her/his family. Providing care goes beyond simply providing presence. Have other youth make a giant card with encouraging scripture written on it. If someone from the church hasn’t made a sign-up sheet for providing meals for the family, make one. Remember to only take as much food as the family will need. Sometimes it works best to bring by food every other day instead of every day. The church may be providing food, but the coworkers of parents may as well.
  3. Do assist with the funeral and visitation. If you are a senior pastor this job likely falls on your shoulders. Families experiencing grief often need guidance in making plans for burial, especially if the loss was unexpected. Funeral homes might try and up-sell the family a bunch of things they don’t actually need. Questions a family needs to think through may include: Did the deceased have a life insurance policy and if not, where will the money come from for the funeral and burial? (Some families may need assistance from your church’s deacon’s or bereavement fund.) Are they going to bury or cremate? If burial is their choice do they have a plot? Will the coffin be open or closed before the service? Do they want to have a private funeral for the family only, and a memorial service open to the public at a later date? They may want to pick songs or scriptures that had special meaning to the deceased. Funeral directors will help guide the family through many of these decisions, but a pastor’s presence and gentle advice can save a family thousands of dollars in unnecessary expenses. It’s not really the youth minister’s place to help guide a family through these decisions, but youth ministers can help in axillary roles such as: being an extra pastoral presence at the visitation and funeral service, providing transportation to teens that may be getting out of school early for the funeral, helping transport the elderly to the graveside service, picking up a floral arrangement from the church and delivering it to the funeral home, printing bulletins for the funeral service, or pushing out information about visitation and funeral times on the church’s social media accounts.
  4. Do come up with an extended plan for care. Grief is a process that takes considerable time to deal with. Make plans for follow-up contact with the teenager and her/his family in the days and weeks after a funeral. A house can get awfully quiet and even lonely after extended family has all gone home, meals are no longer being delivered to the house, and everyone else has gone back to routine and normalcy. The week after the funeral, plan on dropping by the family’s house and visiting for about thirty minutes. Let the family know that you are praying for them. Send encouraging texts to teenagers, perhaps with a scripture to remind them that God is grieving with them and loves them deeply. On the first day the student goes back to school send them an encouraging text at the beginning of the day. Be mindful of the one year anniversary, and set a reminder on your calendar to send a card. The teenager and family will likely need counseling to deal with the grief process. Make appointments with them as necessary.
  5. Do help other teenagers in your group process the death. Other teens in your group are likely to have known the deceased, especially if it was a parent, a friend’s sibling or one of their peers from school that died. They are likely to need help processing the situation and may be grieving themselves. Take time at youth group meetings or in the hall on Sunday mornings to speak with teens that are processing the death. Teens may be very disturbed by death because they have never considered the fact that they too will die one day. They might want to spend more time with members of their own family because they have never fully appreciated the frailty of life. Teenagers will also need help in knowing how to comfort their peer. They’ll have no idea what to say or do, but they’ll be willing love on their friend. It’s the responsibility of a youth minister in this situation to teach students in the group appropriate ways of providing comfort and care to the bereaved. The same principles that apply to ministers are appropriate for youth to consider as well: that presence is more important that having the right words to say, that care is more important than avoidance for personal comfort, and that the body of Christ goes into action when a family in the church needs loving care. The students of your church are future elders and deacons, assuming this whole discipling things works. Take the opportunity to teach them how to care for others in the church who need their support.

Five Don’ts

  1. Don’t use clichés or filler phrases. Just because you don’t know what to say in the event of tragic loss doesn’t mean you have to say something stupid. Many times when we are uncomfortable with a situation we may be tempted to use filler phrases that do little to help the grieving individual. Avoid saying things like:
    • “Well I guess God just needed another angel.” (Then God could have made a new angel without taking a loved one away. God has enough angels. This is not only a stupid thing to say but it’s bad theology.)
    • “At least you have your other parent/sibling/children, grandparent.” (Totally ignores the loss at hand and trivializes the griever’s pain.)
    • “I know _________ is smiling down on us.” (Doesn’t make the loss better at all. The bereaved would rather have the family member smiling here and now.)
    • “Don’t cry, he/she wouldn’t want you to cry.” (Crying is part of grieving, and that’s what needs to happen for healing to come.)
    • “We should be joyful because he/she’s in a better place.” (This may be true, but some people use this filler phrase as crutch to avoid the awkward pain of grief.)
    • “If you think this is bad, I know a family that…” (If you say this to a grieving person Chuck Norris will hunt you down and punish you with a roundhouse kick to the face. Minimalizing someone else’s loss to draw attention to ourselves is one of the most selfish things we can do when caring for a person in grief. Beware, Chuck is watching.)
    • “The Lord never gives us more than we can handle.” (While this is biblically true, that’s not at all how a grieving person feels. The weight of losing a loved one can be devastating.)
  2. Don’t speak more than you listen.[iii] When people grieve they often process through talking. Sharing their feelings, memories of the deceased and talking about how their loved one died are all ways of coping with loss. Let the grieving person talk, and simply be content with being present with them. Many people want to give advice or tell their own personal story of loss as a way to avoid the situation as hand. This however trivializes the loss of the bereaved and comes across as quite tacky.
  3. Don’t judge people based on their reaction to the death.[iv] Grief brings out a litany of emotions. Many people fear death and have never considered their own mortality. This is especially true of teenagers. A teen’s initial way of confronting death may be total avoidance, because they have never faced it before. Some adults might try and pressure a teen to view an open casket, or even eulogize the deceased at the funeral service. The teen may not be emotionally able to handle either of these and should be allowed ample space to process what has happened. Be careful about placing pressure on the student and encourage parents, who are likely grieving also, to give their student room to breathe while dealing with death for the first time. A grieving person may have anxiety about the up-and-down emotions that come with grief, and find that they have little control over outbursts of tears, stabbing memories of when they found their loved one dead, joyful and nostalgic memories of the deceased and even raging anger against God. All of these emotions are natural psychological responses to grief. Not one of them is sinful. We should treat grieving teens, angrief is ok hered their family members with the utmost grace and love, however they mourn.
  4. Don’t rush the student and their family through the grieving process.[v] It takes a LONG time to grieve. The process is not over in a week, a month, six months, or even a year. If a teenager has lost a grandparent, sibling, or parent, it will take considerable time for emotional healing to come. There is no such thing as “getting over” the death of someone you deeply loved. There will always be a hole in the family, and a part of the bereaved will always mourn the loss, especially if it was an untimely or unexpected loss. If the death of the loved one or friend was especially tragic, i.e. suicide, drug overdose, murder, drunk driving accident, etc., the grieving teen may need counseling that is beyond the reasonable scope of care a minister can provide. Youth ministers and pastors should keep a list of local professional counselors and grief support groups handy, and be mindful of when a student or parent is in need of care beyond regular pastoral counseling. When a situation is out of your league, refer the family to a Christian professional in the area who can assist in their care and healing.
  5. Don’t use the death as an opportunity for alter calls, evangelism or an object lesson in Bible study. Ecclesiastes says that there is a time and place for everything. There is a time for pastoral care for grieving families, and there is a time for evangelism. When a family is grieving and emotions are running high, the last thing a minister should do is become an opportunistic soul winner who preys on the emotionally vulnerable. Giving an alter call at youth group on Wednesday night after a student at the local high school is killed in a car accident is not entirely appropriate. In fact, the LEAST pastoral thing you could say in such a situation might go something like this: “Jimmy didn’t know God and therefore is certainly in hell. He would want you accept Jesus as your Lord and Savior so that you don’t burn for all eternity like him. So who wants to give their heart to Jesus and avoid the eternal anguish of face-melting fire? ” Sure, you could get a lot of “decisions” for Christ in said scenario, but have you helped any of the teens actually process grief? Have you been the quite presence of God, who listens rather than feels the need to have all the answers? Do students who come forward in a situation like the one above REALLY surrender to a life of discipleship, or are they signing up for fire insurance? A death in a family or in a school provides excellent opportunities for dialogue and conversation about faith, but ministers should tread carefully and be sensitive to the true needs of grieving students and families.

In the second century a.d., the Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius said, “Death smiles at us all, all a man can do is smile back.”[vi] Death is an unavoidable part of living, and teenagers are bound to deal with death sooner or later. Knowing some appropriate, and equally inappropriate, ministerial responses to grief can make all the difference in the quality of pastoral care a person receives while grieving. We hope this list of do’s and don’ts is helpful to you in thinking about how you minister to grieving teens and their families.


[i] Olson, Dr. G. Keith; Counseling Teenagers-The Complete Christian Guide to Understanding and Helping Adolescents, (Group Books, Loveland CO, 1992), pgs. 489-491

[iii] RTS Bereavement Services, Suggestions for Grieving Families Handout

[v] Ibid. missfoundation.org