Ask Rooted: How Do You Minister to a Student Whose Loved One is Sick or Has Died?

We asked several experienced student ministers and licensed professional counselors how they minister to a student who’s loved one is sick or has died. We hope their wisdom sparks insight and ideas in your own relational ministry.

Anna Harris (Editor at Rooted Ministry in Birmingham, AL) said:

Ministering to the grieving is a long-term proposition, but God works lasting healing through a faithful minister. Persist in showing constant, steady, unconditional love, no matter how that love is received or rejected. Do this through practical means: have lunch, have coffee, throw a football, attend a game, send a text, take a walk, extend the invitation. Seven years after their dad died, my sons still do all these things with their youth pastors and mentors in our church, but only because these men just kept showing up. Pay special attention during natural transitions, like starting high school, and times of stress and emotion, like senior year. Oftentimes the loss hits all over again. Another thing to be aware of: grieving kids carry heightened concern for their remaining nuclear family, so those relationships can become emotionally charged. It will be a relief to have a trusted adult outside the family.

When each of my older two sons left for college, their youth minister, along with some of the men in our church who have been committed to my sons, took them on a “retreat.” They did fun things like waterskiing and golf, but they also talked to my boys about what it looked like to walk with God during college. Most importantly, they made the boys feel loved, continuing and reaffirming the commitment they made to my fatherless sons.

The single best resource I have ever seen is Nancy’s Guthrie’s What Grieving People Wish You Knew About What Really Helps (And What Really Hurts). Every pastor should read it.

Also check out this helpful podcast from Rooted, Helping Kids Deal with Grief.

Josh Hussung (Pastor of Youth and Families at Grace Community Church, Nashville, TN) said:

Be present. When I worked at a small, rural church in West Tennessee, I had a high school student who left for school one morning, just like usual. As he left, his dad was sitting in his recliner, taking what the student assumed to be a little snooze after doing morning chores. When he returned home, he was still in the chair, and had actually died that morning before his son had left for school. As I stood with this student in the hospital, where they were going through the formality of having the coroner pronounce him, we didn’t say anything. I just stood there with him and his friends. Our presence in his life was a comfort in that moment. Words would come later, and they would be helpful too, but in that moment, he didn’t need words. He needed people who loved him to stand beside him.

Alice Churnock (Licensed Professional Counselor at Covenant Counseling and Education Center in Birmingham, AL) said:

Less is more. When a student’s loved one is sick or dying, the healthy response is to expect the grief process to take its course. Both passive emotions like sadness, withdrawal, and eventually acceptance are countered with active emotions like anger, bargaining, and attempts to frantically control an aspect of life (grades, eating, etc.). Ask him or her to tell you stories of the sick or deceased and be willing to listen to the same story again and again. Therapeutic resolution is exceedingly aided by a patient and listening ear. Help create rituals or memorials to remember the person – rock or plant gardens, balloon releases, running a 5K. Most importantly, remember that grief is never as quick as anyone would like it to be. It’s long. It’s hard. It’s messy.

My favorite book for helping with any kind of loss is, Tear Soup: A Recipe for Healing After Loss by Pat Schwiebert. It’s beautiful illustrations and a simple yet powerful message address all forms of grief.

Chris Li (Youth Minister at Living Hope Community Church in Brea, CA) said:

Although social media has drastically shaped our teenagers today, nothing replaces personal presence. There is nothing wrong with a message, email, or text, but personally talking with a student and walking with them through their grief is uniquely powerful. Whether it be at church, doing a visitation at the hospital or home, or taking them out for food, being present speaks volumes. Eloquent words do not always come to mind, but being there means you can listen to how they are doing, see how they are feeling, and pray for them and their loved ones. In our youth ministry, students have lost loved ones and family members and even gone through sickness and surgical procedures themselves – when these kids are walking through the valley, I believe they need someone to walk with them. Sometimes our presence reminds them of God’s presence and that’s exactly what they need most.

Seth Stewart (Pastor of Student Ministries at Bridgeway Church, Oklahoma City) said:

It’s easy to feel awkward engaging with a student who is suffering through the loss of a loved one, or who is currently witnessing a loved one’s chronic suffering. Here are some things to consider:

1) Acknowledge the pain, say “I’m so sorry,” and offer a hug. 
Sometimes we say nothing, and sometimes we say too much. It’s surprising how a simple acknowledgment of suffering can be powerful.
2) Don’t say: “Is there anything I can do?” or “If you need anything, call me.”
Especially in grief, the sufferer doesn’t know what they need and they won’t call. Instead of offering to help, just help. Sending a package of candies to their house with a card, showing up at the hospital uninvited, or praying for a student during worship or a quiet moment communicates far more.
3) Follow up, but don’t ask “How are you doing?”
Follow up a week later, a month later, two months later, three months later, and so on. After the initial shock, most people will stop talking about what likely still weighs very heavily on your student. Instead of asking “How are you doing?” ask something more concrete like, “What does your grief look like now?” “What memory are you holding on to from your grandma this month?” “Has there been any progress on your Mom’s cancer?”

Liz Edrington (Coordinator of Girls’ Discipleship & Young Adults at North Shore Fellowship, Chattanooga, TN) said:

What an important, important question. One of the most critical things to do to care well for a student who is losing someone (or has lost someone) is to be intentional with reaching out to them. Be willing to endure the discomfort of the powerlessness you may feel in being with them, and endure that discomfort for the sake of loving them. Please do not try to fix their pain or grief with Scripture references, and please listen to the Lord’s leading as you seek to care well for this student in Jesus. Ask them if you can pray for them. Ask them if they’d like to talk about the person and how that person’s life impacted them. Depending on the relationship to the sick or lost, invite your student to tell you stories related to the person (and if they had a poor relationship, the student may not be interested in telling stories, which is okay). Validate, validate, validate the emotions of the student and invite them to bring them to the Lord. There may be a moment to break open the psalms to invite your student to grieve and be known in their grief. With and for. By, through, and in Jesus, be with and for your student.

Mike McGarry (Pastor of Youth & Families at Emmanuel Baptist Church in Norfolk, MA) said:

Sharing memories and stories of loved ones who have passed away is a great way to treasure their legacies. While it’s definitely more comfortable to avoid conversations that might make the other person emotional, they almost always thank me for sharing stories or remembrances. Remember, while everyone else has “moved on,” your student continues to grieve… and efforts like these can show them they aren’t the only ones who continue to treasure their loved one’s memory. Obviously, use discernment. While reminiscing can be a good way to make sure your student doesn’t feel like they’re grieving alone, not everyone will feel immediately ready for this.

Cameron Cole (Director of Children, Youth, and Family at the Cathedral Church of the Advent) said:
In my second week on the job as a youth pastor, the father of a boy in my youth group died. I was twenty-five years old and had never been through loss of any significance. Until I did have a major tragedy in my own life eight years into ministry, I really had no real context to draw from in ministering to grieving people. I look back at a great deal of my thinking in this area of pastoral care as a youth pastor and cringe. I wish I had Nancy Guthrie’s book – What Grieving People Wish You Knew about What Really Helps (and What Really Hurts) – back then to instruct me on how to minister to grieving people better. For a youth pastor new to ministry or a person who has never gone through a tragedy, I strongly recommend reading this quick-to-read but rich book from Guthrie, who has deep wisdom from her own personal tragedies but also from ministering to thousands of people who have encountered significant loss in their lives.

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