Teenagers and Loss
By Rev John T. Schwiebert, MDiv
I recently received an email communication from a high school student that read:
I am currently working on a project about how the death of a peer affects teens. I would really appreciate your feedback on this project. Some questions I have for you are: how does losing a friend affect a teen’s views on religion? Do these effects vary noticeably in teenagers of different religions? Does the way a teenager's religion or culture view death have a prominent impact on how they perceive the death of a peer?
What do you personally think is the best way for a teen to recover, spiritually speaking, from the death of a friend? Any advice you can give me would be great.
This was my reply:
First, the death of a peer, for a teen, will be shocking and extremely painful if the person who died was a close friend, and only a little less so if there was a more indirect connection. For many teens this will be the first experience of death first hand and the sense of loss will most likely be connected with a sense of one’s own vulnerability and mortality, as in “it could just as easily have been me who died, instead of Kevin.” These are quite normal responses and they will probably be the same for all teens who were personally acquainted with the young person who died, regardless of their respective views about religion.
If the surviving teenager has been raised in a family and/or church that teaches that “believers” who die “go to a better place in an afterlife,” he or she will probably feel under some obligation to not view the death negatively, and to use words that attempt to minimize the sense of loss. This may cause some difficulty if the teenager feels inhibited from expressing openly their deep feelings of loss, fear, anger at God and/or doubts about the goodness of God (“How could God allow this to happen to Kevin?” Or, even, “How could God allow this to happen to me”?).
For example, the teenager may suppress tears in order not to appear weak and unsure about his faith in front of his parents, but also in front of his peers. This is unfortunate because it is helpful for grieving persons of any age to be able to express grief openly and to have their peers accept and respect these expressions of grief without being judgmental.
We recommend that gatherings be held where all teenagers who were affected by the death of a classmate or other mutual friend have the opportunity to be together and to share their feelings of loss openly without fear of rejection. Attendance at such gatherings should be optional, but it should be made clear that many people have been helped in moving through their grief, by availing themselves of such opportunities.
It would also help to hold similar gatherings in churches or other contexts where there is even greater freedom to process the feelings of loss with others who share common religious beliefs and language. In such gatherings, in my opinion, participants should not worry about imagined contradictions between affirmations of faith with deep feelings of loss. In his death Kevin may be in a better place; but if I am one of Kevin’s best friends I am definitely not in a better place! I am in a place of real pain and it will be a while before that pain tapers off.
This would also be a good time to process honest questions about faith and God. It may also be helpful to know that grieving people of faith have moved through periods of serious doubt only to arrive at an even stronger faith as the intensity of their grief recedes.
There is an expression in the Bible shared by Jews and Christians that reads: “Those who sow in tears shall reap with shouts of joy!” (See Psalm 126:5). I have witnessed this outcome many times. And the harvest of joy may come sooner than we expect. In fact joy can coexist with sorrow as those in grief support groups will testify. Picture a gathering of young people who have lost a classmate to death: they weep together as they face the reality of the loss they share, regardless of their differences in religious beliefs. But in the same gathering they also smile and feel gratitude for the life that they were able to share with the friend now departed!
I hope this response answers the questions you raised. Feel free to contact me if you want more information.