on grieving with those teenage girls

I sit with them in the homey living room, their eyes cast down toward the floor. I have no words because there are no words. And so it is quiet for a time.

A little over a week ago, a student in our community died in a skateboarding accident. I didn’t know him, but our students did. And tonight, as I gathered with my girls for our regular small group meeting, the few who knew him talked about him. They talked about how school is different now, how nobody sits in his seat in class, how counselors are available in the library, how they don’t like change.

They have questions they aren’t asking, and so do I. There are things that don’t make sense to them, or to me. And so we sit in the quiet for some more time. I read a verse from Psalm 34, and promise that the Lord is close to the brokenhearted, and I know it’s true. But that’s easy for me, with all my children, watching from a safe distance. But if I were his mama, it’s hard to say if I would let anyone get close to my broken heart.

And in the midst of all of that, in the midst of sitting there and listening to the few there who knew him talk a bit, do you know what I’m actually thinking? I’m actually worried about the fact that I don’t have answers, worried that maybe they think I should, worried about what I should say, and knowing there is nothing, really. At least nothing that will make it okay. And then, I feel ashamed for thinking of myself. Shame never takes a break, you know; not even for death.

I’ve heard other leaders who work with youth say similar things during times of grief: what should we do? say? how do we help these students? Grown ups don’t know how to deal with death any better than kids do. Maybe worse, actually, because we carry a burden of responsibility around grief, as if we should have something profound to say or some comfort to offer that will make a difference. To love them well, we have to release ourselves. If I’m looking at me, I can’t see them. And in times like this, they need to be seen, heard, and loved well.

Still, in this place I’ve made for soul breathing, things like this tend to knock the breath clear away. And the song by Regina Spektor comes to mind No one laughs at God in a hospital/No one laughs at God in a war. . . Because you can be apathetic about God for only so long. There comes a point where you have to decide what you believe, who you trust, where you’ll make your safe place. We have to do this for ourselves, sometimes by the minute, in order to have anything to offer those grieving teenage girls.


  1. says

    I lost 4 friends in high school. One of them was my first kiss. These thoughts you have written have stirred up the memories of what I felt 25 years ago when I found out they were gone. Wandering around school feeling lost and confused. Crying and hugging and not knowing what to say or how to express what I was feeling. Funerals that were just not suppose to happen. Questions that could not be answered.

    I shared the story of this boy with my kids the other day. They are only 6 and 8. I felt they needed to know. They asked me if he was a Christian? Did he know Jesus? Was he in heaven? Wow, how do you answer these deep questions. I wanted them to know that these things do happen. They are the reality of life. I don’t want to scare them, but I want them to know that accidents happen and I want us to be able to talk about things like this when it does happen.

    Praying of this family. Praying for your girls and everyone who knew him and is missing him so much.

  2. says

    I’m so so so so sorry, Emily. For the kids. For the parents. I lost a young nephew (22) less than a year ago and one of my students (14) two months later. There isn’t much to say, but I agree with you that we, as the adults who are supposed to have answers, need to let ourselves go to God so we can at least be there for the grieving. The best thing I came up with to say was that I didn’t understand it and hoped to some day. And that these kids can’t choose their feelings. And that it’s okay to feel something different than a friend. Praying for your community today.

  3. says

    Thats a profound insight, Emily – that we have a sense of responsibility in situations like that.
    I didn’t recognize it.
    The feeling that if we can’t make it ok, we should at least be able to offer an explanation.
    Or something to take the pain away.

    I remember when I lost friends in high school, we didn’t really turn to adults for comfort: we teens seemed to gravitate to each other – not looking for wisdom really; just finding confort in being together.

  4. says

    Wow — that is such a powerful truth. Shame for not knowing how to help. Keeps us focused on ourselves. The yuck of grief is so real and overhwelming, especially when we feel like we need to rise above it and pull them out of it. But we can’t. We can just point to Jesus. With our listening. And our not saying stuff sometimes. And praying.
    One of my jr. high best friends committed suicide in 11th grade, the day after her boyfriend’s funeral (who had also killed himself). And although I spent at least a week in a true fog of grief and sorrow beyond depths I’d never known, the most vivid memory is of my dad holding me the day I found out. I honestly have no idea if he said any words, but his arms that held me to his chest until I was ready to let go — that is what I remember. And totally what I needed. Just like the arms of Jesus.
    Praying for you all as your community grieves.

  5. says

    We did ministry with a group of young men in their twenties before we moved to our current church. One Thursday night we had Bible study at our house. The next Thursday morning the phone rang and a young man who we were just getting to know had overdosed and died in the wee hours of the morning.

    We walked through that time with his best friend who was the one that discovered him and called the ambulance.

    We hugged and cried and fed kids and gave them a safe place to grieve.

    In such times there are no words. It isn’t right. Death is the enemy. It’s never natural.

    The only thing to do is love, listen, and mourn with those who mourn. Then point them to the Savior who defeated death and will soon make all things new.

  6. says


    I am called to speak after this post. Unfortunately, too many times my family has said good-bye to friends too soon due to our immersement into ‘the heart kid’ world. I have found myself reeling with questions of “Why?” and wondering why the big world hasn’t stopped spinning when our little world just did. But I’ve felt the same helplessness in being ‘the mom’ when my youngest – heart healthy – little one was just 2 and suffering from what we soon learned was appendicitis. I remember acutely ~ 15 months later ~ crying that I couldn’t fix the suffering she was experiencing. And wondering if at 2 when your body is breaking and your mommy isn’t making it better if you see Jesus and know Who He Is. Because truly, all the rest falls away and all you are left with is Him. Just as Solomon said. So in truth, I pray that you would continue an open dialogue with these girls and remind them that we are just human and He is forever. Because this can be a testing ground, this grief and learning to deal with it and choosing to keep looking to The Light. I pray they continue to choose Him.

    Anyway, I love you girl. {But you know that :)}

    • says

      What an incredible comment. Of course all of emily’s commentors add so much to the dialogue, but to read these words this morning, your confirmation gleaned from incredibly difficult life experience, that our jobs as parents is to be sure that our children know Jesus and Who He Is, even when they are *really* young…that is powerful. Thank you both, emily and Karin.

  7. says

    After spending years in youth ministry, there really seems to be only two things to do in those grieving times: listen and hug. I gotta admit–that’s terribly difficult for me. I’m a “fixer” and I like to have the words that will make it all better. Sadly, sometimes there are just no words….

  8. Tami says

    After months of silent following, I can’t resist commenting on this one. THANK YOU, Emily, for being so real and giving words to the emotions that lurk in all of us at times like this. Any of us women who are living out Titus 2 relationships, older teaching the younger, carry that weight of responsibility that so often crosses over into guilt. Yet you put it so beautifully, that whenever our eyes are focused on ourselves we are missing out on seeing them. May we have the humility to admit there are times when not knowing the answers is ok, soley because we know the ONE who does hold every answer!! The most poignant part of your post is admitting to the silence. You know, it was when Job’s friends opened their mouths that their friendship went from helpful to hurtful. Their silence brought comfort but their words brought only condemnation and confusion. I believe the Holy Spirit uses silence to comfort in the most hurtful times of life. You are incredibly blessed by God with an ability to articulate in an amazing way, yet He chose to have you remain silent because there is comfort in that too. These girls are blessed to have someone like you willing to quietly walk through this time with them.

  9. says

    I am so very sorry for this family’s loss.

    My senior year in high school our circle of friends experienced a loss among our friends. And when his parents were offered his diploma at graduation, the grief in the room was palpable. Nearly 300 students who should be celebrating a milestone sat stone faced for the one who wasn’t walking in the graduation line that day.

    We may not understand why, but it’s so wonderful that those girls have a place to talk about it. Someone who will listen and embrace whatever their young emotions may be thinking. You are doing so much good.

  10. says

    I have had to walk with my children through grieving the loss of a young girl in a terrible car accident a couple of years ago. I had no answers for the “why” questions. I could only offer what I knew to be true in the word. It didn’t make it any easier. Praying these young girls will find strength through this difficult time.

  11. says

    I have a letter coming up that tells Atticus, specifically, that we are his parents but that doesn’t mean we have all the answers. And last week I told him not to trust anybody who does. The people I trust in this world are the people who are not afraid to say that they don’t know when they don’t know. I learned that from a lot of people, but especially from one interview in particular with Billy Graham. If he can say he doesn’t know or understand why we have to have so much suffering in the world, I guess it is okay for me not to understand it, either. I am happy to be in line behind him.

    The safe place we offer can simply be a place of not being alone in not understanding why the darkness does, sometimes, seem to overshadow the light. And I think being honest about how confusing life is can be a great gift to offer our young people, to show them that it’s not as if they will grow up and have things figured out. (That was a lie I believed for a long time.)

  12. says

    The girls are lucky to have you to just “be” with as they grieve and process…Last fall when my son was a high school senior, a classmate took his own life (his older brother had also committed suicide.) I was at a loss of what to say and how to help- I just tried to “be” there when he was ready to talk, and shower him with love and hugs. The students took solace in being together, and at graduation talked about how the experience had brought them closer. It’s so hard to watch teens have to deal with hard, adult pain.

  13. says

    When I was sixyears old, I watched as my brother drowned. If it had not been for a stranger, my parents would have died that day too…and much of my childhood was spent watching my parents struggle with my brothers death.

    You will not have the answers for thier questions. The best response is to be honest with them. Love them, hold them when they cry, when they rail in anger at the injustice of this life- guide them gently back to the truth of God’s love and the life that awaits after this life, remember the good that is here and the memories of those that are gone.

    The rain does eventually pass, and the sun will one day shine again.

  14. Lawrie says

    Dear Emily,
    So hard to say good bye to one so young. So hard to say goodbye to anyone no matter how old they are. There are no real words to make anyone feel better after a funeral. I have lost so many people and immediate family and close friends from early on in my life, that it is clear to me that DEATH STINKS!!! The heart ripping pain, the unanswered questions, the voice you will never hear on the other end of the telephone, the pit in your stomach that doesn’t go away for a long time, the inability to laugh , the fear that you may never really feel joy or anything at all EVER!

    Because of God’s great love for us, Christ died for us! I am so grateful that the soul tearing pain that I feel when I lose someone I love is not in vain. That God remembers every tear, that death is conquered by my amazing savior. Death Stinks but Christ LIVES and LOVES. Nothing can separate us from the love of God not even death.

    Thanks Emily for being the hands and feet of Jesus to those girls, crying and hugging and loving them.

  15. says

    In the days leading to and following my mom’s death a little over a month ago, my 10-year old son wavered between wanting to talk about it and not saying much. I just let him come to me when he wanted to talk. I (as well as my husband) was available just to listen to him. Sometimes I told him I didn’t understand, either. Sometimes I tried to make him understand that sin is what caused death to enter the world. And sometimes I just held him as he cried…and cried right along with him.

    Those girls have a treasure in you.

  16. says

    Ooo, that is a tough one. We have worked with youth in the past and had one die in a car wreck. Very sad and very difficult. SOmetimes all you can do is be there for them and reassure that God IS love, no matter what.

  17. says

    Some days it feels as though ministering to teenagers comes with so much pressure. Pressure to say the right thing, to do the right thing, to set the proper example, to offer up answers. How important it is to remember that sometimes, we will say the wrong thing. We will do the wrong thing. Our example will falter because we falter. Our answers will be wrong or unclear or nonexistent, because, as you have so eloquently stated, answers don’t always exist. Maybe instead, our focus should be on representing Jesus as best we can. Providing those open and loving arms that Brianna mentioned above. Because we won’t always have answers. And we will say the wrong thing and do the wrong thing. But at least we are trying. And we can show these teens that really, we’re all just God’s children, constantly seeking His face for what He’d have us to do.

  18. says

    I have experienced grief as a teenager…and it can so add to the confusion that already comes along with those years!. One thing God has been teaching me as I raise my girls is to lift Him up…if He be lifted up He will draw all men to Himself
    (John 12:32). We can never have the words or right things to say…and they may or may not feel like trusting….but He can draw them to Him…so that He can heal…..I know because He did for me!

  19. says

    Oh Emily…
    I’ve so sat exactly there…we’ve had three young women die in our ministry in the last 12 years. There is nothing to do but mourn with the mourners…
    Praying for you friend!

  20. Grace says

    We are nearing on the anniversary of my step-sisters suicide. And while my family mostly travels on the road, my mind begins to spin when I think about the fact that we’re scheduled to be home at the anniversary. And we live in the house now, as my dad and step-mom no longer could. I’ll be honest in scared. I don’t want rove home at the year because I know the hurt is still raw and it is hard to comfort when you still mourn

  21. says

    I think that for those of us who love words, we are always looking for just the right thing to say that will make everything better. Perhaps there are circumstances so inexplicable that there really are no words. Perhaps wrapping someone in a hug and just sitting with them is enough.
    I struggle in those times too Emily. I would imagine that as those kids watch you live out your faith, it speaks volumes to them.

  22. says

    There was a tough period in my life when I lost a relative a few years ago, and one of the things that really lifted me up was when 1 of the Christian leaders in my church told me “Noone has all the answers, it’s OK”. So although, it’s good to show people your strength and faith in God, it’s also equally important to be humble, and assure them that noone has all the answers.

  23. says

    dear emily,

    i couldn’t believe it when i read your post…we lost a student last week at the high school where we do ministry…my husband was at school all day the day after “counseling” kids…he felt so weak and I just kept encouraging him with “the ministry of presence” as I believe Nouwen says…praying for you all, will you pray for us?

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