Pastoral care is a comfort to youth experiencing grief

September 9, 2014

Having ministered to adolescents for many years, I am mindful how a sense of loss permeates so many of their life experiences. As they navigate the roller coaster ride of friendships, their hearts often become battered, bruised and broken. Some encounter the loss that occurs through divorce or death of a parent, grandparent, or close friend. Perhaps it entails the loss that accompanies a transition to a new school or city. For others, a life-threatening accident, sickness, or injury confronts their mortality. 

Grieving is a personal and highly individual experience in which emotions may be intense, but serve as a temporary and natural way the body processes loss. 

Whereas a grief reaction serves as a normal, natural response to loss, children and adolescents may not yet possess the emotional or mental maturity or adequate coping skills to respond to the loss in the same ways as adults. 

The intensity of their emotions and the personal experience of disorganization may be so overwhelming that, at times, they may resort to various undesirable coping responses that result in injury to themselves or to others. Having a trusted person and/or safe place to release the emotions is essential for the healing process to take place. 

The Church community has had a long established tradition of care-giving to those in situational crises. Whether the care is in response to a community suffering from a natural disaster or to an individual experiencing a physical or emotional trauma, members of the Church act to share their time, presence and resources for those in need. Because we are human, it is normal to experience a natural aversion to pain and suffering. 

Yet, within the very condition of human suffering, God chose to send Jesus to embrace the suffering and brokenness of our humanity and to redeem it. As his disciples we are asked to share in this redemptive love.

Recently, I attended a wake service for a young adult daughter of a dear friend. Although the family shared a deep sense of faith and hope in God’s providential care, their deep abiding sense of loss and sadness touched my heart and moved me to tears. 

I could only offer a few words of consolation and my heartfelt presence to them as I recalled that “Jesus wept” when he encountered the grief of those who mourned his friend, Lazarus (John 11:35). 

Whereas professional pastoral counseling may be indicated to respond to those persons who need help to recover their coping abilities, all members of the faith community can exercise pastoral care characterized by attentive listening, genuine interest, a non-judgmental disposition and compassion. 

By offering young people who are grieving a non-anxious presence, the community can reestablish a safe and supportive atmosphere reflective of the Father’s loving care. 

Peggy O’Mara, the author of Natural Family Living, states that “The way we talk to children becomes their inner voice.” If during the times they experience grief, they also experience respect for their feelings and a patient hopefulness through the faith community’s spoken and unspoken engagement with them, then they can begin to internalize the healing power of God’s love. In this way, the Christian community can truly bring Christ’s comforting presence to those who mourn.

For formation in pastoral care with young people experiencing loss and grief, contact the Office of Adolescent Catechesis and Evangelization.