Let’s consider your role in the life of a grieving student. You may not have formal counselling training, but for the vast majority of grievers, this is not what they need.
Your role is to be a grief companion – to be present to the mourner, to watch out for and to keep and to honour them.
What does this look like? It’s sitting with your student in their pain. It’s being present. It’s sharing with them.
I remember when a pair of my students lost a parent. I went over to their house, not to provide great words of comfort, but to sit with them in their grief, to pray with them. I was present with them that morning, as I had been through the journey of anticipated loss and the months following the loss.
In these moments of deep loss, our presence reminds students that they belong in our community. It shows them that they are loved and valued.
As grief companions, we need to understand the difference between sympathy, identification, and empathy.
The sympathetic youth worker will “feel sorry” or “pity” the grieving student – they are looking at the situation from the outside.
The youth worker who identifies with the student will make statements like, “I know how you feel.”
Neither of these approaches equip us to be grief companions.
Our response must be rooted in empathy, or “feeling with” the student.
Empathy is rooted in presence and is about making an emotional connection. We are not judging the student or their circumstances; we are seeking to understand.
As a high school student, my youth pastor invited me and some of my peers into a leadership opportunity that cultivated skills that have helped me in ministry.
His initiative helped us learn how to be present in our friends’ grief. It taught us the importance of giving our undivided attention and focus, and encouraged us to reflect on the kinds of questions we were asking.
As youth workers who are active listeners, we must learn to be committed to the student and to the conversation.
When we set up a time to meet, we must be fully present in that conversation. But we must also be patient and allow the conversation to unfold organically.
Many of us may be hesitant to commit too much to a grieving student as we do not have the therapeutic skills we may think we need. Grief counsellor and author Alan Wolfelt reminds us in his book Counseling Skills for Companioning the Mourner that most people who are grieving do not need therapists: “Therapeutic techniques can often be tossed out the window in favor of good old-fashioned listening.”
Have you ever noticed that in a group of students who appear not to be listening, there is always one who can repeat your statements verbatim? That student has mastered the art of listening, but their body language doesn’t match up. It’s frustrating, isn’t it?
Our body language matters as we are listening.
Rachelle Goodrich reminds us that “few realize how loud their expressions really are. Be kind with what you wordlessly say.”
Practically, this looks like putting your phone aside and ignoring the notifications. Even better, silence your phone altogether! Lean into the conversation and show interest on your face.
I’m a fidgeter and find it easier to concentrate if I’m playing with a pen. However, if I’m journeying alongside a grieving student, those kinds of motions can be detrimental to the conversation.
Keep your hands in an open, palm-up posture. Nod occasionally. Pay attention to your posture – relax your shoulders, open your chest, and stay turned toward your student. These visual clues will signal that you are engaged and interested in what your student has to say.
So far it sounds like as a youth worker journeying alongside a student that all you need to do is listen. That’s not true, of course. Conversations require two-way communication.
If I’m sharing with a friend, I wouldn’t want them to monopolize the conversation; I’ve come to them because I trust them and value their insight. Likewise, your student has invited you to accompany them because they trust you.
Paraphrasing is a helpful skill to develop. It allows you a chance to express what you’ve heard and can give the student a moment to clarify what they’ve shared. A helpful question to keep in mind as you paraphrase is, “What is this student saying and feeling?”
As your conversations continue, remember to use open-ended questions or active listening leads such as:
Could you tell me more about that?
It sounds as if you’re feeling …
What would you like to talk about?
What I hear you saying is …
What to Avoid
As grieving companions, we’re going to make mistakes. We’ll say the wrong thing and need to retract a comment. We’ll paraphrase incorrectly, and the student may get upset.
It’s helpful to know some common pitfalls and reflect on them so that we can avoid them.
Don’t try to problem-solve too early. We need to remember that teenagers are complex, and their struggles, and grief will not likely be wrapped up quickly. Effective companions are invested for the long journey.
Don’t be afraid of the silence. Allow students time to collect their thoughts. Sit silently with them and remember the comfort that comes from having a companion who is present, but not needing to fill the space with words. You don’t need to interrogate the student to find out every detail of the situation that is grieving them.
Don’t be afraid to refer a student onto another level of counselling. I’ve said that most students will be well-supported by your presence, but it’s entirely possible that there will be students who need therapeutic work that you can’t provide.
To build on the metaphor of being a companion, there may be a point in the journey when you are ill-prepared to help them continue in their journey. Set the student up for success by having contacts you can refer them to.
As you walk with your students through their grief, remember that grievers need attentive companions – youth workers who can set aside social media notifications and attend to the conversation and student in front of them.
We might not be trained therapists, but we can be present and attentive by choosing empathy, listening actively, moving intentionally, and questioning openly.
If you are interested in learning more about pastoral care and counselling alongside your current work, consider enrolling as a No Program Divinity Student at Acadia Divinity College – an independent track at both the graduate and undergraduate level that offers flexibility for credit courses without the full commitment of a program. As an NPD student, you can enrol in courses like Understanding Pastoral Care and Counselling and Ministry in the Face of Grief, Loss, and Death.
If you’d like more ideas on how to equip your youth ministry team to walk with students through grief and loss you should watch the on-demand webinar with some of the experts from Acadia Divinity College. Find that here.