Look for the Helpers and Have the Conversations You Also Don’t Have Answers For

I was in middle school when two students brought guns into Columbine High School and committed mass murder of their students, teachers, peers.  I remember coming home from school on the bus, being by myself in the house, and watching the news.  I remember what happened consuming my thoughts for weeks to come.


I was in high school when a father and his son shot people in the DC metro area as they were pumping gas, walking out of grocery stores, or coming out of restaurants.  I remember being told by my mom that if the car needed gas not to fill it up, but to let my father do it.  I remember being told to sprint through the parking lot into the grocery store.  I remember being scared of white vans.  I remember having my whole life turned upside down by the actions of one man.


As a student, as a young adult, and as an emerging adult navigating a scary world, I have found and continue to find peace and hope in the church, in God, and in the Gospel of Jesus Christ.  I found adults who would talk with me and help me process what was going on.  I sang hymns and songs about God being faithful in the face of fear, uncertainty, and death.  And I heard the angels voice in Scripture saying “Fear not!”


All too often our students are dealing with the same things I was forced to deal with.  As parents, as church leaders, as Christians who care about children and youth we want to help our young people navigate tragedy.  We want to help them process what they are seeing on tv, on Facebook, on the internet.  We want to help them have a healthy and realistic attitude towards the world, one that’s neither fatalistic or naïve.  And perhaps most of all, we want to help our young people see that God is at work in the world, in their lives, even when we see the catastrophic results of our human brokenness.


Wanting to provide resources for you in helping our young people process tragedy, I reached out to our Family and Youth Coordinator Brenda Amodea.  She passed along a very helpful article from the Fuller Youth Institute that we have printed below.  She also passed along these three thoughts that come from Brene’ Brown’s newest book that is about the polarized, fear-filled world we now live in.


  1. Prayer and civic action are not mutually exclusive.
  2. Step away from social media coverage and toward real people for support, action, conversation, and being with each other in collective pain. Keep informed, but don’t stay glued.  Our secondary trauma will not make us better helpers-it shuts us down and sends us into self-protection and blame-finding.
  3. Adding this one for our kids: All we can do is acknowledge the pain and fear, create space to talk about what’s happening in an age-appropriate way, and own our own vulnerability and uncertainty. It’s also important to put down some guidelines for watching the news and talking about it.  We want them to ask us and depend on our answers, not those of their peers.  And, of course, love them as hard as we can.


Finally Brenda added that in times of tragedy we should look for the helpers.  There are always people helping, always people reaching out, people running into danger on behalf of other people.  They remind us that there is goodness within us, that God is not done with us, and that hope is not silly or naïve.  Look for the helpers because this is where bravery wins out over fear.


We pray for you.  We pray for your family.  We pray for peace and love to abound in our communities.  And we pray for wisdom and guidance for all of us as we seek to make sense of the world we live in, have faith in the midst of tragedy, and raise and nurture young people in trying and scary seasons.


Here are the next-step resources from the Fuller Youth Institute:


Helping young people process Las Vegas
1) Use phrases that help them feel safe to share

Start with something basic, like, “What do you know about …?” to assess what they’ve heard, seen, or processed already. This will give you a baseline for what else to ask or say. Try to match your response with their level of awareness.
You’ll find a handful of other open-ended phrases might prompt young people to speak more freely, especially when they’re confused, sad, or scared: 

  • Tell me more … [about what you’re feeling; what you mean; what you’re experiencing.]
  • I wonder how … [that person might feel; we can help; this is impacting you?]
  • Let me know if … [you want to talk more later; you have a friend who’s struggling with this; you start to feel anxious or afraid.]

Chances are good that the young people in your life will pose questions for which you don’t have answers. Here’s a useful response to keep handy: “I don’t know, but…” There are a number of ways to access the power of this question to hold a safe space with a teenager:

I don’t know, but … 
… that's an important question.
… I wonder that, too.
… thanks for sharing it with me.

You might, of course, have an answer to the question. But even if you do, it might be wise to step back and probe a bit before unleashing your “right” answer. It might turn out that being heard is more important than the answer itself, at least at the moment.

2) Pray and sing laments to God

“Why are you so far off? Why have you hidden your face from me?” 

Common spiritual reactions to tragedy include anger at God, questioning God, and struggling to trust God. The most appropriate response to these kinds of reactions is to lament. Lament is a God-given tool to pray and worship our way through pain and tragedy. While uncomfortable and sometimes awkward to read, the psalms of lament (there are over 65 of them) in the Bible give us language for crying out to God in ways we might not normally find acceptable. That’s exactly why they’re preserved for us. 

In response to traumatic experiences, it is critically important for a community of faith to offer space for this kind of response to God. As youth workers, we may fear taking students to those places of doubt, anger, and disappointment with God. However, failing to create an environment for authentic lament can result in spiritually and psychologically short-circuiting the necessary healing process. We have the opportunity to offer the hope of Christ and his re-orienting power to lives that have been plunged into trauma and disorientation. 

Consider taking time in your next gathering for a reading of Psalm 88, 80, 61, 13, or 10. Ask reflection questions like, “Is it okay to say these kinds of things to God? Where could this kind of prayer go from here?” Then read through the psalm again and invite students to journal or draw their own continuing prayer for a few minutes. Afterwards talk through their feelings of comfort or discomfort in approaching God that way. If you’re a parent, try reading one of these psalms with your family as a way to grieve tragedy together.

3) Look for signs of post-traumatic stress

It’s possible that recent natural disasters and shootings have left some young people in your community experiencing post-traumatic stress, even if their experiences are vicarious (for example, watching videos of traumatic events on social media). Symptoms include feeling hopeless, numb, on guard or scared, having trouble sleeping or eating, or other physical distress.

If someone you know is experiencing these symptoms, start by encouraging them to stop watching and reading news related to the events. Use some of the tools above to ask good questions and help them process what’s going on. If signs of post-traumatic stress linger more than a couple of weeks, it’s a good idea to help the young person find professional help.

Dr. Cynthia Eriksson, a trauma specialist in Fuller’s School of Psychology, also has offered these suggestions for pastoral care we can offer to young people experiencing post-traumatic stress: 

We need to let them express whatever is going on in their minds in terms of their relationship with God. Our pastoral [and parental] tendency is to come in with some sort of answer, to help people not doubt anymore. However, the most important first step is to be heard, even if what needs to be said are horrible thoughts toward God. Let go of the need to be a theological educator and stay in the moment in a pastoral place with that person. Acknowledge that it’s often hard to see God in the midst of those experiences. 

If we turn to someone in the midst of doubt and say, “God is going to get you through this,” we risk the possibility of the person feeling guilty or judged for not being able to hold onto that hope themselves. I’ll never forget when I discovered Psalm 88. It doesn’t end with professions of God’s faithfulness, but rather something like, “I’m going to die”. There are moments in life where we do not see the hopeful side, and it seems impossible to hold on to God’s goodness. For many, it might take a long time to see God in the midst of what happened. The most caring thing is to hear the doubts and not try to “fix” the person or convince him or her otherwise. 

4) Reference additional resources as needed

These ideas are just a start. The following are articles and websites we trust and believe can help you as you navigate these challenging waters with young people. Please let us know about other resources that are helpful for you. 

Leave a Comment

Comments for this post have been disabled.