Processing Tragedy & Grief as a Student Ministry Leader

One of the things I love about my job as an XP3 Orange Specialist is resourcing those who reach out to us looking for some help. As a Pastor in a local church for 11 years before doing this, I remember how amazing it was to reach out to someone for resources and then receive a smorgasbord of delicious ministry treats.

Just this past week I got an email from someone looking for some resources. But he wasn’t looking for anything about recruiting, training, sweet game ideas, or any of the other usual suspects. A student in his ministry had recently died by suicide and he wanted to help his students grieve in the healthiest ways possible after such a tragic loss.

Had I been doing this job three years ago, I would have had very little to offer him. I’d experienced very little loss or grief in my life. Sadly, over my last three years of ministry, we experienced six deaths which were closely tied to our youth and kids ministry: two infant deaths, two college students who had graduated from our ministry and were volunteering in youth group, a father of two of our youth who was also one of our Small Group Leaders, and one of our Senior guys.

As happens in ministry, these people and their families were close, personal relationships to me, not just ministry relationships. These were some of the most trying, challenging, and taxing times I had ever had in ministry—in life, really. I was lucky enough to have an amazing family, church staff, small group leaders, and friends to walk through these times with and to lean on in the midst of the grief.

The truth is, tragedy is something that all of us face sooner or later in our lives. And that means it’s something we might encounter at some point during our time in ministry. If you are in the midst of a season like this in your ministry (or if it happens at some point down the road), here are a few things I learned in my time that I hope might be helpful for you. For what it’s worth, I am not a grief counselor or a mental health professional. This is just what I’ve learned, experienced, or was encouraged with along the way.

  1. Find time to grieve for yourself.
  2. The ministry of presence matters.
  3. Help your youth grieve.
  4. Equip your Small Group Leaders to facilitate these conversations.
  5. Create ways for your youth to process honestly.
  6. In circumstances involving suicide, talk openly and honestly about mental health.

Find time to grieve for yourself.

Leading a group through the grieving process is difficult and draining regardless if you are the Pastor leading a group or a Small Group Leader leading your few. There is such a difficult balance to maintain between taking time to grieve yourself and leading others through a healthy season of processing and mourning. Don’t be afraid to show those you are leading (youth or otherwise) that you are grieving too. Lead by example and show that ignoring our emotions is not wise or healthy. Talk to a counselor. Be careful about your schedule over the next couple weeks. Plan to do things that give you life. 

There may be a pull for you to ‘power through’ and to always be ‘on’ in your role. For your own sake and the sake of your family, you need to push back against this. It’s just like the oxygen mask on an airplane (you know, how the parent is supposed to put the oxygen mask on themselves before helping their kids). It feels backwards sometimes, but if the adult isn’t taking care of themselves, their kids will be worse off. We often feel a false sense of pride or duty when we power through things like this. But trust me, it’s not helping anyone.

You have to be intentional about finding time to grieve in these situations.

The ministry of presence matters.

In ministry, we often feel like there are certain things we’re supposed to say as a reminder to the grieving families or in an effort to help. In reality, these are rarely helpful and often harmful. In these moments, the ministry of presence matters and is powerful. Just be. There may be some appropriate things to say at times, but don’t look for opportunities to interject your thoughts. If Jim Cook, a man I look up to very much, was talking to you in those moments, he would simply say, “Be the non-anxious presence in the room.”

Often, our presence and non-anxious disposition can be the best representation of God’s presence with the grieving family. It’s when we open our mouths that we tend to ruin that. So, in those horrific but holy times when we are able to be with a family who is about to lose or who has lost a loved one, don’t feel the pressure to fix anything or say the right things…just be there.

Help your youth grieve.

The reality is, when it comes to experiencing grief, your students will be all over the map. Some will have experienced grief through lost loved ones before and some won’t. Some will have been emotionally connected to the person who passed while other’s grief is more proximity and community-based.

In each of the losses we went through, we spent time together processing grief in a large group setting. We would give them permission to ‘be’ exactly where they are. We want to help students express the grief that they have while not creating a false grief in the lives of those who were not connected with those who passed. A big focus during this time is to help them understand what it means to grieve and mourn in healthy ways while also giving them some common language to help them talk about it. That leads us to the next one…

Equip your Small Group Leaders to facilitate these conversations.

If your students are going to have healthy conversations, your Small Group Leaders need to be equipped to facilitate those. If you are the pastor or leader, remember that many of them are feeling this same tension you are between grieving themselves and trying to help their few grieve. Prep your leaders ahead of time so they know what you’re going to talk about. One way I did this was by recording a 6-minute video for our Leader Facebook Group that walked through a few thoughts and plans for that Sunday. This helped them connect more to me and to our focus of the gathering on a far different level than an email could have. I’m happy to share that video if it’s a helpful resource.

If you are going to have a small group time for your students to process, don’t just write down some questions for them to ask. Give your leaders as much language as possible to help them facilitate the conversation. Do your best to help them understand that everyone will be grieving at different levels and in different ways. Give them certain questions to ask if their group was connected to the person who has passed and different questions if they weren’t.

Most of the time there will be students will want to talk or ask questions about the details of how the death occurred. This is more likely to come up when there has been death by suicide. In the large group time, help them understand that having answers to these questions will not be helpful to them. Equip your leaders to handle these questions/conversations with sensitivity, but to move toward healthier dialogue.

Also give your leaders direction on how to transition the conversation to something lighter. It may not be best for some groups to stay in heavy, difficult conversations for the entire time. Give your leaders language to help their group know they aren’t doing anything wrong if they have some light, fun conversation after transitioning from the heavier stuff.

Create ways for students to process honestly.

Once you give students some guidance and common language in a large group setting, give them a space to talk. You’ve already given your Small Group Leaders language, direction, and questions to facilitate this conversation, but create flexibility so that the conversations can go where they need to go. Help group leaders understand this isn’t their opportunity to do their own teaching on grief, this is a time for them to facilitate.

Some groups won’t be as connected to this and will just need to spend a few minutes talking through it before they’re ready to move on. Some groups will need to spend a few minutes on something lighter just to bring some balance to their emotional health. Equip your leaders well to navigate these conversations and then just create time for these things to happen.

In circumstances involving suicide, talk openly and honestly about mental health.

The losses that are suicide related will be difficult for your students (and probably you) in unique ways. Do not be afraid to talk openly and honestly about mental health. I’d argue that you are responsible to talk about it. Don’t use language like “killed themselves” or “committed suicide.” Instead, use the phrase “died by suicide.”

Do your best to find mental health professionals that can be available during a gathering that you will be talking through this stuff. Designate a room that is available for anyone to go to at any point if they’d like to talk with someone. Key focuses of this time include to removing the negative stigma that exists around mental health and encouraging anyone struggling with these issues that they aren’t alone and that they should talk to someone.

A key phrase we used regularly to try to remove the stigma of mental health issues and encourage open dialogue comes from Perry Noble’s book, Overwhelmed:

It’s okay to not be okay, but it’s not okay to stay that way.

I can’t encourage you enough to work honest, open dialogue about mental health into your message and small groups on a regular basis. It doesn’t have to be weekly, but you shouldn’t just talk about mental health issues reactively.

RELATED RESOURCE – RYM 012: Navigating Mental Health and Suicide in Your Ministry


Grief is never an easy thing to deal with. Leading others through grief often multiplies its difficulties. However, we have such a privilege and responsibility as pastors, church leaders, small group leaders, and volunteers to help students understand that we can grieve in a healthy way and that God walks along side of us in the midst of that grief.

I am willing to share any and all resources I’ve collected or created regarding this including small group questions, notes from large group conversations, funeral manuscripts, etc. Email me at btalley@rethinkgroup.org if you’d like them or just need to process a difficult season with someone.

Orange Conference 2018