by Erin Hicks
Suicide is something you will never be prepared for.
When I got the phone call last January that one of my youth had taken his life, but was still not legally dead, it wasn’t real to me. He was the youth who was always smiling, a teenager with a big heart. The majority of my youth had all grown up together. They were in a state of disbelief that their friend, someone many considered a brother, had not gone to any of them for help. Below are some ways that I helped my youth cope with the death of one of our own, including what I did while he was in a coma.
- Getting permission from family, along with input. The pastor, who was at the hospital, worked with me to find out from the parents what they wanted to share with the youth and church family. We made sure that we knew what the family wanted before we even thought about sharing any details. I opted to send out an email that, while it didn’t share details, let everyone involved in the youth ministry know what was going on. In this email we also included the family’s request that the youth’s name not be put on social media. I also included a date and time for all of us to gather in prayer at the church.
- Being a presence, but not overwhelming. I made sure that the family knew that I would get them food or water, or I would pray with them. For the most part, I simply sat there, waiting. It is in the smallest of acts, though, that make a difference, like hugging someone or going for a walk with them.
- Night of prayer. It is important after something so tragic to pull the community together for prayer. We invited the youth, their parents, and church members who had relationships with the youth to gather together. I made sure that the Senior Pastor was present, and he was able to find a counselor to be present as well. The counselor answered questions, and she provided information about what we might be feeling or will feel and what to expect. While one room had the counselor, I also set up a quiet room with space for the youth to simply sit, eat some chocolate, draw pictures, write letters or questions for God, or read some Bible verses that talk about how God is a comforter and is eternally present with us.
- Be honest. Again, while not sharing too much, it is important to be honest with the youth. From talking to the doctors, I knew that this was something that this student couldn’t come back from. I felt it was important to be honest with the youth, so many of them wanted to think that there was a possibility that everything would somehow turn out okay.
- Social media and talk. My youth knew the family didn’t want their son’s name on social media, but that didn’t stop students from school from putting the name out there. There was a lot of anger on the part of my youth, feeling that people were disrespecting the family by going against the their wishes. Students wrote on social media that he had died the day after the attempt, leading youth to call me, crying because they just didn’t know what to believe. Sometimes the best thing we can do is tell people to avoid social media for a week or two, and to disregard any talk in the school hallways. I made sure to call the area school counselors who had my youth in their schools so that they would know what was up in case one of my youth needed to talk to someone––something I encouraged all of them to do, particularly if they just needed some time during the day. If they heard any talk that they deemed hateful or wrong, I also encouraged them to simply tell an adult instead of talking to the student themselves.
- Call the parents. When the boy did pass away, after praying with the family and friends present at the hospital, I started calling every youth parent. I wanted the youth group to hear about his death from someone who loved them before they heard it from another source. It is also helpful to make resources or other information available to the parents, particularly if their kids want to talk to them.
- Make yourself available to the youth. Some youth don’t like to talk, but others need to. Some of my youth simply wanted to be around people who loved them, people to whom they didn’t have to explain what they were going through. It can be helpful to see if anyone would like to have a meal, ice cream, or coffee. I also let everyone know that I could come to the house if they felt my presence was needed.
- Kleenex, hugs, and chocolate. At the funeral, it was the family’s wish that the youth sit in the family section. One of the youth moms brought numerous packs of good, soft Kleenex that we put out on all the pews. Before the actual service started, during the long visitation, I put some chocolates and Kleenex in the youth room, making it a safe space for the youth to steal away to. I also tried to keep an adult or two in the room with them as well. We made sure that a couple of adults were always present near the family, in case they needed a break during the visitation time, or if they needed a tissue, bottled water, or simply a chair to sit in for a bit.
- Church worship. Through conversations with the Senior Pastor, we decided to change up the order of worship for the Sunday following our youth’s passing. We moved up the children’s time so that they were not in the sanctuary when the Senior Pastor explained to the congregation what had happened. Again, we had tissues available to everyone since almost everyone in the church family knew the youth who had died. I also made sure that the youth knew that they could feel free to leave if they needed to at any moment during the service, because it can be overwhelming to be surrounded by so much grief. Adults and parents surrounded the youth during the service as the youth, as always, chose to sit together in the front of the church.
- Give yourself rest. I was lucky in that I had adults from the church who called to check on me and make sure that I was eating; a friend even kept my dog for me. One thing I knew was that when I was home I had to rest. I needed to make sure that I was taking care of myself so that I could take care of the family and youth. When I was at the hospital I took my Bible and a faith journal in which I jot down encouraging notes so that I could remain spiritually fed. That and prayer kept me going. I did wrestle with a great deal of guilt and questions. There is only so much we can do, and instead of blaming ourselves or feeling guilty, we have to continue to look for God; we must continue to look for ways in which to make God’s presence, love, and hope known during this time––that also kept me going. During this time, remember that it’s okay to cry and to show your pain, it’s not a weakness.
- Follow up with the family. Make sure that the family knows that they will not be forgotten. Find an adult to organize dinners for the family, planning a few that come a month later just as a reminder that we are still present. Call, write letters, and visit the family. Remember important dates, like the youth’s birthday or the birthdays of their family members.
- Worship together. For a couple of months, I had been working on a Sunday evening worship service for the entire church, a way to kick off the Sunday night studies. The worship service fell the Sunday after the funeral. I worked to rework the service so that it would better feed those who would come. It ended up being an incredibly healing evening. One thing we did was set up a piece of long cloth on a table where people could draw or write out prayers or needs. In the middle of the service, once everyone had had an opportunity to write or draw on the cloth, two youth brought it up to lay on the cross as the youth who was about to lead those gathered in prayer explained that just as the cloth was laid on the cross, so were all our burdens if we would simply give them over to the Lord. I preached that evening on how God will never let us go down the drain, despite how dark life can seem at times. We ended the worship service with communion, before all joining together in a large meal provided by one of the youth parents to give everyone time to simply be together.
- Dictating the church’s response. Another youth minister in the area showed up at the hospital and we started talking. One thing we decided was that we were going to dictate the church’s response to this suicide. We gathered with other area local youth ministers to pray and talk. What eventually came about was a field day (day full of games) for our youth–a chance for them to have fun, followed by dinner and worship. Each church brought in additional adults and youth to plan the event, and we decided that it would not just be one event but the first of quarterly events that we would do together. The challenge for the kids that came to the event was that they hold one another accountable, and seek to be there for each other. Whenever they see anyone in a shirt from the event, they’re supposed to say hello and give them a high-five, a small step in building Christian community with the larger church.
- Give your youth a chance to talk and ask questions. Silence is okay. Let them know that whatever they’re feeling is okay. However, always remember that playing the blame game, though a natural tendency with a suicide, is not a road that anyone needs to go down.
- Give your youth something real and constructive to do. On our calendar we had our first real youth Sunday coming up, so I asked the youth if they still wanted to go through with it. They all did, and they all wanted to take the message of hope to the larger church. For six weeks, the youth worked together on Sunday mornings to craft every aspect of the worship service––four youth shared the sermon, each writing a homily on what hope means to him or her. They also honored the young man we lost by including part of the Affirmation of Faith that he had written in Confirmation years before in the youth group’s Affirmation of Faith.
- Remove the stigma. Depression has a stigma attached to it that makes people feel ashamed to tell others that they’re depressed. Some Christians will lie and say that “good Christians will never suffer from depression.” We need the stigma removed if want people to feel comfortable asking for help, especially our youth. Confessing that you need help shows strength, not weakness.
Each group and situation is different. All we can do is seek to live in continuous prayer, connecting us to God so that it is the Almighty who shows us the way. You know your kids, and the best you can do is to lovingly serve the kids whom God has entrusted to you.
Erin Hicks is a graduate of the Center for Youth Ministry Training and is pursuing her Master of Divinity at Princeton Theological Seminary.