Five years ago, I lost my best friend.
We knew that he’d be the first to go. He had fought for 20 years with kidney failure. But even as I anticipated the grief, I did not expect the length and the terrain of my grief journey.
It broke me open and shattered me in pieces.
I read some great books and some not so great, but the best part of my journey was finding community with other people who were grieving.
As we came together and shared with each other, I relearned a truth I’ve always known but revisited in a profound way: God has me in His hands.
A grief group was paramount to my healing journey.
Here are 8 key insights I’ve learned not only as a participant in grief groups but also as a facilitator. Most of these insights were learned through trial and error so you can learn from my mistakes and successes on your own journey.
1. Know When to Start a Grief Group
A grief group is not for every youth group or for every situation. But from a leadership point of view, there are a few reasons a grief group may be helpful:
- If there is a collective need in your ministry for focused attention on grief (i.e., a number of students are journeying through grief)
- If there has been a shared collective event in your community or school (i.e., the loss of someone within the group)
- If there is a concern among your team about capacity (i.e., you’ll spread yourself thin if you attempt grief care with multiple individuals)
2. Follow the Three A’s
As I’ve worked with youth over the years, I’ve come back to the three A’s from Dr. Marv Penner, a leading Canadian voice in counselling youth:
- Availability – As youth leaders, you want your teens to know that you are there for them. Being available doesn’t mean no boundaries, however. You have to be aware that over-availability can lead to unhealthy relationships and dependency.
- Authenticity – We need to make sure we are the same person at youth group as we are anywhere else. Authenticity builds trust. The challenge is finding the balance between being authentic and over-sharing. Test sharing the vulnerable parts of your story amongst your fellow leaders before you share it with young people. Your colleagues in youth ministry will help you discern what is oversharing and what is helpful.
- Accepting – Our young people have learned to measure themselves by likes and shares. They have felt rejection, but hopefully youth group is a place they understand their value and worth. Acceptance does not mean that you honour all behaviour, however. As Dr. Penner would say, there are unintended messages we send when we accept without standards.
3. Make A Group Covenant
Included in the first session of any grief group I lead is what I call a “group covenant.” This is promise that we make together, and it’s completely generated by the participants. It helps the group to articulate what they value, what they want, and what they need from each other.
I always make sure my group covenants include:
- A commitment that no matter how dark things get, or how stirred up we may feel, that we won’t harm ourselves because of it, but rather use the group or leaders as resources to lean on when things get hard.
- A discussion on confidentiality. Ask the group what it means to hold and bear witness to someone else’s story. How can we do to others as we would have others do to ourselves?
4. Sit in the Silence
Once trust and relationships grow within the group, vulnerability follows. Vulnerability leads to deeper trust and helps others feel confident in releasing some of the tender areas of their grief journey.
A key in all of this is how comfortable the leader is in the midst of the deep waters of grief.
As a facilitator, you will need to be comfortable with silence.
Often, we want to say the right thing or offer a band-aid phrase, but in most situations, the silence that follows deep sharing is of greater importance than any cliché answer we can provide.
Don’t try to fill the space. Linger in the silence.
5. Everyone Has a Story
Maybe it is because I’m from the east coast and people here like to tell a good story, but one of the chief tools I use in grief groups is storytelling.
What I like about stories is that they seem most natural to share and they help people process their feelings in a safe way.
When we put our relationships into stories it helps to clarify what those relationships meant to us and what they still mean to us. As we articulate the story of our loved one, we continue this rich tradition of divine communication through narrative.
Two example ‘story questions’ you can ask someone are:
- Can you tell me about your brother/mom/grandparent?
- What were they like?
6. Equip Yourself
There are a number of grief programs out there. Programs are not perfect, but they can help to provide a framework.
Here are a few things to keep in mind about programs and resources:
- If you are a first-time grief group facilitator, find a program that has plenty of
resources for leaders
- Identify the resources you already have within your church – this obviously includes senior pastoral staff, but it may also include resources from your denomination or local seminary
- Engage people within your church from across generations – some of them have a story to share of God’s goodness and grace in the midst of a dark valley.
In all of this, remember that grief groups must remain driven by the person you’re engaging with rather than a process/program.
7. Practice Self-Care
The challenge with being a lifeguard and watching young people swim into deep waters is that it can take its toll on us emotionally.
Just as we may hear a message of taking care of our “temples” this needs to extend to the emotional and psychological aspects of these temples, as well as the spiritual and physical aspects. But how do we do that?
- Pray. Both before and after groups begin. Ask the Lord to make clear what is “my stuff” and what is “their stuff” and invite Jesus to pick up or take away anything that isn’t ours.
- Debrief with other leaders to share high and low points of what is being shared. We cannot ask people in grief to go to places that we are not willing to go ourselves and we may be triggered by what we hear.
- Take advantage of counselling if it’s built into your health benefits. Another
alternative is speaking to trusted and mature people in your life. Don’t keep everything to yourself.
8. Remember You Are Not Alone
Talking about real things and exploring real emotions is not for the faint of heart. But I’m a firm believer that whether you’re in a group or one on one, you are never alone – the God with us in life is the same God you and I encounter in the lives of others.
The grief journey is one that can be a proclamation of good news. As Jesus followers, we look for ways to share that good news, and our grief groups can remind us that the good news of Jesus is still great.
Are you 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 a NPD student, you can enrol in courses like Understanding 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.