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Grief and Mourning in Youth Ministry (part 2)

Stages of Grief

To get us started, let’s just get rid of the word “stages” of grief. The very word “stages” implies order and progression. I would like to move away from that concept and use the word “dimensions” of grief instead.  The idea of dimensions allows the individual suffering grief and mourning to move in and out of these dimensions without the pressure of resolving each stage. The follow are some of the different dimensions one might experience during grief work or while in mourning:

The Shockwave of Disbelief

These feelings are often part of the first wave of emotions that wash over us as we react to the news of the death of someone we care for.  Shock is God’s physiological gift to us, via our body, to protect us from the overwhelming reality of such distressing news. Shock allows our emotions to resolve what our ears are hearing. It works as a shock absorber does in a car. They may have physical reactions to such news, such as; rapid heart rate, dizziness, nausea, crying, anger, or even passing out. These are horrible to experience but are often part of the normal experience; they should just let it wash over them.  On a side note, they may have reoccurring experiences around certain dates, anniversaries, seasons, etc. as they relate to the event of death or the one who died.

A State of Confusion

As one moves past the initial shock, they may even begin to feel they are coming unraveled. Life can quickly become disorganized and confusion can settle in. Everything they have come to know as stable, secure has been undone, and it will take the brain time to process and re-establish a new equilibrium. The individuals left behind are left looking for something to tether to that will give them that stability and security they had before the death. This looks like a person drowning desperately searching for something that will help them stay afloat in the middle of a storm. There a normal behaviors that accompany this dimension; loss of appetite, sleep pattern disruptions, isolation, and intense dreams of the deceased loved one. They will usually come out of this and must go through a period of disorientation before they can become re-oriented later.

Life is Turned Upside Down

When such a traumatic event occurs, it can cause others to question their own morality and beliefs, leading to anxiety and panic. At the same time, the secondary losses come to the surface, such as; loss of future expectations and hopes, financial loss/costs, or simply going through the loved one’s possessions/room/clothes, etc. Fear of these inevitable activities can lead to feelings of being never moving beyond the loss.

Intense Negative Emotions

Kinesthetic and emotional energy builds and has to find a way out of the one grieving.  That energy can burst from the individual in explosive ways; rage, hate, blame, intense fear, and even jealousy.  These emotions and thoughts are concentrated and will typically dissipate over time if expressed in healthy ways, such as crying or talking about them and continue the work of mourning.

I Should Have/Could Have Done Something to Stop it

As the brain tries to make sense of the tragedy it looks for ways to avoid similar experiences in the future, with other loved ones. It does this by attaching feelings of guilt to certain memories and experience in the hope that we will learn to change our behaviors in order to prevent loss from happening again. This is an irrational thought process but one that is normal.  Guilt is God given and serves to deter us from engaging in certain behaviors. Guilt, when wrongly attached to events outside of one’s control become problematic. The follow are common guilt conditions individuals experience surrounding the death of a loved one:

  • Survivor-guilt: This is common in automobile accidents where one individual dies and another survives.
  • Relief-guilt: This is common when a terminally ill individual dies and the caregiver experiences relief because they no longer have the burden of caring for the individual and the accompanying stress.
  • Happiness-guilt: This is common when a survivor experience happiness after the death of a loved one, as if they are never supposed to experience happiness again while in the shadow of the death.

The Darkness of the Soul

These are the more common expressions of grief and mourning.  Sadness is what you would expect one to feel after the death of a loved one. These are completely normal and their intensity, frequency, and duration will vary but the overall experiences could last several months or even years, depending on the circumstances. Reaching out to supportive people during these times can help you navigate these moments. Also, being aware of specific holidays, anniversaries, dates, etc. that could trigger these emotions is important, as it will allow the individual to prepare in advance, therefore not being caught off guard when the “wave crashes on the shore”.

Moving Beyond Mourning

Those in mourning may find layers of relief over time. As they move through the work of mourning relief may come when someone is finally able to talk about the death and their feelings. If the individual has been repressing their feelings, they may feel a weight being lifted as they start to open up about their inner world. When one reaches the point where they come to terms with the death and accept the current reality, they may find relief as if this tragedy is beginning to be resolved and they can move forward in their life.

To those of you who have experienced grief, can you resonate with any of this?  What in particular resonates with you?  Can you see your students and their families, who have lost someone, in these dimensions?  How might you incarnationally enter their grief/mourning?

by Chris Schaffner

Chris is a CADC certified counselor working with chemically dependent persons and those with co-occurring disorders. Chris has worked in the field for 7 years and has worked with children and teens for over 15 years. Chris is also the coordinator for The Shelter, a ministry of Group Publishing that provides support to children’s and youth workers from around the world. He has worked with individuals of all ages who struggle with addiction, abuse histories, self injury, depression and suicide. Chris has provided training locally on suicide assessment and on working with the LGBTQ population. Chris provides training at SYMC, KidMin, UYWI, Operation Snowball events, Chicago HOPES and Access Living, CCDA Annual Conference, OtraOnda Dimension Juvenil Conference, has taught parenting and Anger Management classes, and teaches a community-based series called ‘Coping With…” that equips adolescent with life management skills. Chris lives in Central Illinois and is married to Trudy. They have 4 kids; Blake, Charley Grace, and the twins Claire and Chloe.

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2 thoughts on “Grief and Mourning in Youth Ministry (part 2)

  1. Excellent stuff Chris.

    After my brother died, I would experience great waves of grief between Feb and March – his birth day and anniv of his death. While those waves have settled drastically, I am still cautious with myself during that period. It’s amazing how the slightest smells, places, song, tv show, ect., can trigger something, and everything comes rushing back.

    For me, the death of Robin Williams brought back a TON of stuff. As I’m sure it did for a lot of people.

    • I completely agree Shawn. After my niece Abbey died from an OD I can clearly remmeber moving in and out of the different dimensions. Those special dates that reminded us of her were also hard. My last memory of her was on Christmas Eve. Every year when that rolls around those emotions surface.

      I’ve also worked with families that have lost kids due to car accidents or drug overdoses and knowing about those triggers I can come alongside the family during that time for extra support. I have seen God redeem my grief and use it to help others walk through dark times, as I’m sure God has done with your story.

      Thanks for sharing.

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