Youve outsmarted the young people this time, or so youve thought. Over the summer and the proceeding years you’re beginning to build up a range of resources for every given topic that they might want you to talk about. Sex, Relationships and Sex, all covered, all newly resourced, all ready, you even went ahead and got hold of the new PODS resource from FYT on Sex education for the under 12’s, then theres stuff on ‘other faiths’, evangelism, and ethical dilemna that are up for discussion, abortion, marriage, war and conflict and homosexuality, and with Mental Health in the news so much recently, you’re genned up on this as well; so you’re all set, ready for the beginning of term open planning session that you’re about to do with the youth group.
So the evening of activities and chat goes well, and theres the usual comfortable atmosphere, people connecting, chatting and getting along, after all the group has known each other a while, and last week even you had asked them to think about what they might want to do this term, so they, for the first time are a little bit ready. They may well be excited as they also get the chance to pick the outing or trip for the term, but that is by the by.
And in the main you are right, a number of them did want to talk about sex, or homosxuality, or mental health, a few even wanted to talk about evangelism and church stuff. But the one thing that united them all, was a different subject altogether. They wanted to talk about Cancer. Not only cancer, they wanted to talk about death.
This is not a fictitious story. This happened to me and our group of youthworkers at Durham YFC. The young people wanted to talk about cancer, and more importantly they wanted to share, and talk, in a group about death.
Finding resources to talk about death and cancer with young people doesnt seem to be easy in ‘youth ministry world’ – theres not much about this, more about morality than morbidity. Even as youthworkers in a team we wrestled a while with actually doing the session, how it would be done, and how we might deal with the consequences and emotions. But young people trusted us, to talk about death. And, if there is one thing that the institution of the church could do, more than other – is to help young people, all people, be more prepared for dealing with death.
The reason that this subject has been brought home to me today is that I was at a funeral this morning. But unlike any other funeral I have ever been to, it was a funeral of someone that I have absolutely no connection with, aside from the person being a fellow human on this earth. I was there to help out with some of the technical aspects and to help out a friend who is the vicar leading the service. So it was a rare experience. A rare experience that outside of being clergy, organist, funeral director and church warden might be a rare one for any of us. It caused me to think about the funerals I had been to in my life, and also realise that even as late teenagers my own children have never been to a funeral, they havent had to (and its not that we prevented them) , and maybe thats not uncommon. But neither had anyone talked with them about death before either.
So – where are the opportunities to talk about death and where young people get the opportunity to talk about it? and by whom?
Death is a pretty real occurrence in the lives of the many young people, especially from estates where low life expectation due to poverty is a thing. One vicar I know had done three funerals in the last 3 years of 40 year olds who’d committed suicide relating to mental health and drug abuse. But that kind of thing isn’t confined to the challenging estates is it? A number of schools have experienced teen suicides. Tragically. And what if it is their best friend is the first funeral a young person has to go to, or their 40 year old uncle. There is much to be done for after the event, sure, counselling and therapy, and none of this would prevent sadness, shock and mourning – but at least talking about death before hand might help a little, surely.
Young people drink alcohol like the rest of us. The young people i see drinking do so for social reasons, rebellious reasons and because of escapism. Yet ask a number of them what their other trigger points are that ‘its the anniversary of my best friends death’ ‘ or ‘it would have been my best friends birthday today’ a trigger point for many young people (and undoubtedly ourselves at times) is that drinking is about remembrance, about raising an underage bottle, about making a moment special because the person meant something. But as well, this might also tell us that young people have no other outlet to work through and remember this person, death is to be dealt with through drink.
Im not in any way saying that helping young people deal with the realities of death is going to prevent the tears, the desire to go and get drunk, but neither will it do any harm either. A number of churches and schools have worked together over the last few years to do mock weddings, in order to help young people talk about relationships, commitment, love, sex and also the process of the wedding itself in the sight of God. But what about doing mock funerals? Could all souls day, could halloween be the ready made opportunity for churches, youth ministers and schools to work together to provide a space where young people can experience the emotions of a funeral, can experience the emotions of death and can have done some kind of preparation. Now i know immediately that this might be insensitive where young people have already experienced this and there is a conversation to be had about specific situations. What might the church do that no other organisation can do? – help people prepare for death might be one of them.
Yes I know this is depressing. Yes i know this is not ‘good news’ and not the talk of the gospel, and making church and youth ministry exciting is the game in town. But so is relevancy, and there is nothing more relevant for a church to do that help young people prepare themselves for a guaranteed experience. That one day they will mourn, grieve and cry. That one day they will confront morbidity.
That one day there might be a reality to death that is hinted at in Disney cartoons, with the exception of Bambi, or where characters overcome it immediately in video games, or where there is a heroic death for the character like Boromir, (Lord of the Rings) whos death saved many.
Yet amongst these examples of death we find various perspectives of dealing with the death of Jesus. The heroic death, the quick death who was mourned only momentarily, and even where death is only hinted at – and ‘life moves on’ – and ‘we cant focus on good friday too long’. That a perspective of Jesus’ death must ‘include both what the cross says on its own, what the resurrection says on its own, and what each of them say in light of each other’ (Trevor Hart, 2014, p227). And yet, Tolkeins word ‘Euchatastrophe’ fits is is goodness emerging out of tragedy, Jesus death is a tragedy because of what proceeds and succeeds it and their relation to one another. It was no shallow grave. Death was beaten, but death and mourning was experienced it is short term fullness. The tendency to only talk about good news, or to have a happy ending in our testimonies might only extenuate a sense that we are the ones that cannot cope with death.
The sacred story that the church plays within, and where Christ plays in 10,000 places, is one that includes death as part of its life, the two go hand in hand. The reality of death counters any temptations for constant unreal celebration. It is in this reality where many young people might want the church to find them, and be with them in.
I would like to make a number of suggestions for helping deal with death.
- Get the young people to bring stories, films, and other TV or video game examples of death, and share what is going on in them, in regard to human life, feelings, and emotions.
- Could small groups of young people in years 6,7,8 be given the opportunity to sit at the back of churches at funerals (of people they do not know) as a part of talking about death
- Have special all souls services for the under 18’s in the parish. Where they can remember all under 18 who have died in the area, for pets, or even the celebrities/role models that mean something.
- Have mock funerals, and maybe arrange to have visits to funeral parlours, or the crematorium (that can be a real shock)
- Have death cafes, or evening groups where this subject is advertised and where young people can spend time thinking through death, dying and preparing themselves for what mourning and grieving might involve.
I am sure there are a few other examples too, and some of these might already have been tried. Whilst youth ministry has been often about ‘the life, and life in all its fullness’ a full life might need to have a healthy dose of reality in relation to death in it too, and if this is suppressed, ignored and avoided that might be an issue. We might set up young people for greater trauma. We might have such an under realised notion of death that the now of the present becomes only all consuming. Life is not lived but consumed, without as much greater purpose. Facing death head on, and having a healthier place to mourn, celebrate, grieve and commemorate might be, and could be one of the key significant aspects of faith based ministry with young people. And the week of Halloween, might just have been the perfect opportunity. (but then we avoid it by having light parties instead..?)
Trevor Hart, Between the Image and the word, 2014