How to handle tragedies and grief with your students

It is painfully obvious that we live in a broken world. With international tragedy and chaos every night on the news, it is easy to be overwhelmed. When these tragedies occur in our own country with flooding, hurricanes, mass murders, and school shootings it gets even more painful. And when these tragedies happen locally, the pain and heart break is often too much to bear.

What do we do when someone close to us dies in a car accident? How do we handle the news of a terminal disease in a family member? What sense can we make of natural disasters that devastate entire populations? In this broken world, can we find hope for the broken hearted?

Be merciful to me, O Lord, for I am in distress; my eyes grow weak with sorrow, my soul and my body with grief. Psalm 31:9

While it is true that brokenness, tragedy and grief seem to be ever present in our world, there is a huge opportunity to offer hope and peace to those in the valley of the shadow of death. But if we are going to offer hope in a way that others can receive it, there are some important things we must remember:

We MUST not give platitudes: Platitudes are the ultimate blow off. We think we are giving helpful nuggets of theology to help people in their time of grief, but we are really just keeping them at bay. Telling someone who is in the middle of grief that, “God has a plan,” or “God is good all the time,” or “This is all happening for a purpose,” is awful, simplistic, and is poor theology.

When tragedy happens, we are called to be like Christ, not offer a tract and be on our way. Rather we are to empathize, walk with, carry burdens for, care and comfort. Often this is all done without words.

We are free to protest: It is amazing how civilized we try to be when awful things happen. We want to be good soldiers and hold the company line regarding our faith in God. But we often betray our own hearts and the heart of scripture when we are wrecked on the inside, but put on a good face for the world to see.

Read through Psalm 10, Psalm 22, and Psalm 29. We see David’s prayer journal as he wrestles and protests with God. A man after God’s own heart has the freedom to question, cry out, shake fist at, and confess hopelessness. If David can be free to protest, we should have that freedom ourselves, and for sure give that freedom to those who find themselves with the waters coming up over the neck.

A time to grieve: Ecclesiastes 3:1-4 lays out the way things work in the real world. There is a time for everything, for every activity under heaven. There is a time to be born and to die, to weep and to laugh, and a time to mourn and to dance. It is crime when we only allow space for people to be happy and joyful. Life is hard and awful, and we must allow space for mourning. It is not a sign of weak faith, it is actually a sign of real life.

When my son was little, he scraped his knee and ripped through a couple layers of skin. When I tried to offer him platitudes he didn’t care. When I held him close and told him how much I loved him, he still didn’t care. For a short season of time all he could see was blackness and pain. We must allow people a season of blackness and pain.

In the darkest night, Jesus is right there with us: Even though it didn’t make my son feel better in the moment that I was holding him, when he began to open his eyes and see that I was right there and had been all along, his recovery was quickened. How much more does Jesus hold us and be with us in the most difficult of tragedies.

The best memory verse of all time is John 11:35 “Jesus wept.” While it is easy to memorize, the implications of this verse are crazy. When Jesus went to his friends funeral and saw the grief and despair of Mary, Jesus actually broke down and cried. He knew that he was about to raise Lazarus from the dead, but he was so empathetic, so in it with Mary, that he wept. Jesus is not distant with our hurt and pain, but actually carries it with him.

We have to trust in the character of God: While it is easy to only see today, we have to realize that our world view and understand is so limited. We can never get our head around how all the chain of brokenness and sin pile up upon each other and crush us. Instead of shrinking our view of the universe which puts us in the center, we must expand our view and relay on the never changing character of God.

1 John 4:8 says that God is love. John 14:16 says that God gives us his Holy Spirit who will never leave us and comfort us in our trials and lead us into all truth. 1 Peter 5:7 invites us to cast all of our cares on Christ, because he cares for you. Nowhere in scripture can we find the reason or purpose for death and destruction, but everywhere in scripture we are reminded of God’s love and presence offered to us.

We must rely on the love of God’s people: Because God is invisible it is easy to spiral out about his love and care for us. But the church is to be the body of Christ. We are the ones who are to put the flesh and bones to the empathy, love and care that Jesus offers. This is why simple platitudes are so disgusting in a time of grief. We do not just offer words, but we offer our time, our presence, and in our empathy.

Because we are the body of Christ we must live into the truth that we are not just acquaintances or even casual friends, but according to Romans 12:5, we actually belong to each other. And because of that truth, we must care for one another like we would want to be cared for. Romans 12:15 says that we mourn with those who mourn and Galatians 6:2 says that we bear with one another. We are the body of Christ, and this truth is needed the most when part of our body is broken and bruised. It is then that the rest of the body comes to the aid to nurse that person back to health. We never amputate!

Finally, this is not the end: This broken world is not God’s dream for creation or for humanity. Every awful tragedy is a violation on our very being. Because we are made in the image of God, we are impacted so greatly when death and destruction show up. But our hope is that Jesus redeems all things. He makes all things new, and he heals the most broken of broken hearts. This healing is a long, long road that requires freedom to protest, sitting in our grief, relying on the character and people of God, and slowly but surely, having faith that Jesus will some how right the wrongs.

“Then I saw ‘a new heaven and a new earth,’ for the first heaven and the first earth had passé away, and there was no longer any sea. I saw a Holy City, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride beautifully dressed for her husband.

And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, ‘Look! God’s dwelling place is now among the people, and he will dwell with them. They will be his people, and God himself will be with them and be their God.

He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away. He who was seated on the throne said, ‘I am making everything new!’”

Revelations 21:1-5

Amen. Come, Lord Jesus