An alarming number of college students die each year.
The National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism reports that 1,825 college students die from alcohol-related injuries in any given year. The nonpartisan Everytown for Gun Safety Support Fund has tracked 176 school shootings in the United States since 2013—31 of which occurred on college campuses in 2015 alone. An Emory University study found more than 1,000 suicides occur on college campuses each year. The list expands as we consider students who die by natural causes and true accidents. Young people—classmates, roommates, teammates, friends—die every day.
Not two minutes after transcribing my last interview for this story, my phone rang. An undergraduate student at St. John’s University, where I work, died suddenly just before Holy Week. I had just spent weeks listening to stories of loss from students and ministry professionals across the country. Now here was death, seeping hurt into my own home. My heavy heart grew heavier. I felt helpless.
Like many in the ministry field, my campus ministry colleagues and I had to quickly consider how to care for the grieving college students. They needed to know the community was there to support them. They needed to tell their stories and express their emotions. They needed to engage God and ask where justice is in the death of a 21-year-old. Their ministers needed that too.
As many do when their own words fall short and their own actions seem trite, we sought care in liturgy. Liturgical worship takes many forms after a death, from candlelit vigils on the lawn to a funeral Mass in the big campus church. The night after the student’s death, my campus ministry team developed a liturgy of the word memorial service (see sidebar). It offered time for scripture, song, and silence. We ended the service by lighting candles in a large bowl of sand to call to mind the light given to our brother in baptism. We didn’t know exactly what to say or do. But we knew enough to take our needs to God in prayer.
Our liturgy didn’t take away the hurt, but it gave us a safe space to hurt. It didn’t bring our dead classmate back to life, but it honored the life he had—and his life to come.
Through my experiences and the experiences of others, I’ve found liturgy can address a number of student needs in times of grief. In the ritual gathering and singing, preaching and praying, the liturgy gifted my students with the space to begin to heal. This is not unique to my campus.
Connecting with community
Rachel* was on a school trip when she got a text that would change her life. Her friend Bobby was the victim of a campus shooting.
“I repeated ‘he’s dead’ to myself and it came back like a computer error message. It just doesn’t make any sense,” says Rachel, who talked with Bobby just hours before the attack.
Like many of my students, Rachel craved connection after Bobby’s death. She felt frustrated that few friends reached out to talk about their loss. It’s easy for college students to chat about internships or Friday night plans, but discussing death is not as comfortable. Will I say the wrong thing? What if he starts to cry? None of my loved ones have died. I have no idea how she feels. These common reactions lead many students to remain quiet, tiptoeing around the loss as if it had never happened.
Pastoral theologians Herbert Anderson and Kenneth Mitchell write about the dynamics of grief in their book All Our Losses, All Our Griefs (The Westminster Press). They explain social isolation is a common consequence of grief. The griever thinks no one understands how he or she feels. Internally the person is wracked, yet somehow, the outside world keeps moving forward. It is natural for grieving students to need time away from classes and dorm life to process a loss. But they should never feel lonely or unsupported. Grieving students need community.
Gathering classmates, professors, and administrators together for a memorial service offers students the assurance that they are far from alone in their grief. They are with Christ.
“The church is the sacrament of Christ,” says Timothy Johnston, director of worship for the Diocese of St. Cloud, Minnesota. “When the church community comes together for worship, the very body of Christ surrounds the grieving person. Liturgy trains us to be with people. It reminds us we are one body with experiences of both life and death.”
Luke saw lots of “raw grief” in the days following a student death at his Nebraska university. Proactively, his campus ministry team set out across campus in search of students who needed care. They ate lunch in dorm dining rooms. They prayed with crying classmates. They sat in on meetings of clubs in which the deceased student was involved.
Luke quickly noticed a common desire among the grievers.
“A lot of times, they just want to tell stories,” he says.
Storytelling is a vital part of the grieving process. An important step is coming to terms with the fact that the death is real. The person we loved is no longer physically here. Through stories, the grieving person gently places the deceased person in the past. Joey was a great friend. I enjoyed spending summers together. Herbert Anderson and Edward Foley, authors of Mighty Stories, Dangerous Rituals (Jossey-Bass Publishers), point out such discussion is not done to forget the deceased. Rather, stories of the past help create meaning for the present. What did I learn from Joey’s life? How am I changed because of him? Only after considering the past and the present can grievers begin to look toward the future.
“Stories allowed our students to savor the life of the person in a very real way,” recalls Luke. “All we had to do was create the sacred space for them to talk.”
Liturgy provides natural spaces to listen and share stories. The opening prayer at our memorial service named the transition from death to new life with God. The chaplain called to mind family and friends who were significant to the student’s life narrative. The cause of death could even be voiced in prayer. Each detail helps grieving students create meaning out of a young life cut too short. Johnston says, “The story of someone’s life and the experience of a family parallels the cross in some ways. The cross isn’t just Jesus’ story. In liturgy it also becomes each of our stories.”
Hayley was relaxing at a fraternity house when one of the brothers came in and delivered sobering news. Their friend Cody had died in a study abroad accident.
“We sat there shocked,” recalls Hayley. “He died halfway across the world. We didn’t get any closure.”
Hayley felt guilty after Cody’s death. They were the same age. Why Cody? She often thought of him when their group of friends was out having fun in the following months.
“Cody was always a shining light at parties. Suddenly he wasn’t there,” Hayley says. “On graduation day, I thought of how much he should have been there—but he wasn’t.”
Grief is filled with emotions. Guilt, fear, anxiety, anger, and sadness are just a few feelings that may bubble up when a loved one dies. People often struggle to express these emotions. In his book Listening & Caring Skills in Ministry (Abingdon Press), John Savage notes many try to “seal off” their emotions to protect themselves from further hurt. But suppressing emotions tends to make the feelings stronger and can lead to significant stress on the body. Young people, still growing in emotional intelligence, are especially vulnerable.
I remember watching a puffy-eyed student try desperately to wipe away her tears during our memorial service. She told me she’d be fine in a minute. It seemed like she was judging herself for crying, like it wasn’t an appropriate thing to do. I whispered back, “It’s OK to not be OK. Really, it is.”
Students need to hear this message from a place of authority. Scripture proclaimed during worship validates the whole gamut of human emotions. The psalmists rejoice with God one minute and are furious with God the next. The prophet Jeremiah crumbles in utter anguish. Jesus’ dear friend Lazarus died. How did the Son of God react? He wept.
“People often think they need a perfect, peaceful relationship with God,” says Diana Macalintal, director of worship for the Diocese of San Jose, California. “But most scripture stories with messages from God are not very peaceful. There’s good precedent in our tradition to follow where human emotion calls.”
Naming these emotions during a liturgy gives students permission, in a sense, to feel angry, hurt, and broken. The community is ritually telling the students, “God understands how you’re feeling. It’s good and holy to feel that way. Let it out.”
“In planning our memorial service, we were intentional about letting the students know God sees their pain and is here in their brokenness,” says Will, a campus minister at a university in Texas. God is in the midst of suffering—nailed to it, even. Jesus knows what the final moments of life are like because he, too, had final moments. In his passion and death on the cross, Jesus intimately connects with both the deceased student and the grieving classmates.
Students need to engage God in their pain. After her 23-year-old cousin died by suicide, Sophie sought out quiet moments of spiritual solace. She spent evenings journaling on the psalm, “Be still and know that I am God” (Ps. 46:10) as the chaos of life and death swirled around her.
“When I was spiritually present,I was so at peace,” Sophie describes. “I wasn’t hiding it or pretending to be OK or not OK . . . I just was. I just needed to be in my grief.”
While Sophie says she never blamed God for her cousin’s death, it’s not uncommon for people to think of God as a divine punisher. My students ask, “Does God plan when and how a person dies? Did my friend do something to deserve this fate?” The Christian creed professes belief in one almighty God who made heaven and earth. God is the all-powerful one who saves, scripture says (Zeph. 3:17). God is love (1 John 4:8). And at the same time, there is clearly very real suffering happening here on earth. Many students I’ve worked with wonder, how can both be true?
The images of God used during liturgy can help students engage this tension. For instance, in prayers of lament, we interact with a God who can handle honesty. The psalmists lash out to God, lamenting, “My God, why have you forsaken me?” (Ps. 22:1) and “O Lord, why do you cast me off?” (Ps. 88:14). These prayers tell us it’s OK to bring anger, hurt, and confusion to God.
“We can’t just skip over the hard stuff,” says Macalintal. “Our funeral rites in general put us face to face with sadness and grief. Even if people feel like cursing God or fighting or questioning God, that in itself is still an act of faith. It’s a continuing relationship with God.”
In liturgy we interact with a God who cares deeply for people. Naming God in song as the “Lord of all hopefulness” or “Source of all life” as we did in our opening hymn calls to mind God’s almighty power to bring about good. We painted a picture of a trustworthy God who yearns to give us life and deeply understands our pain.
Working for social justice
The death of a young person often causes the community to step back and consider its own role in the death. Jen died by suicide. How is the community addressing—or not addressing—issues of mental health? Ron was shot and killed. What social systems contribute to the culture of violence?
College campuses are hotbeds for activist movements. Service trips and regular community service opportunities tend to be the most popular campus ministry programs. Many young people engage their faith by engaging social justice issues on local and national scales. Consider the walkouts that took place across the country last fall, when students protested racism at the University of Missouri and other campuses. When injustice strikes, students take action.
Henry was a senior when a student was shot to death on his Illinois campus. The bullet popped their “safe campus bubble.” The shooting happened at the height of the protests in Ferguson, Missouri. A Black Lives Matter protest was planned for the same day as the memorial service. Henry says the two rituals naturally morphed into one another.
“Christianity is a faith that does justice,” Henry says. “We prayed together to God for healing and reconciliation. We were inspired by our faith to do something about his death.”
Students and community members of all ages and races marched to the site of the shooting where they held a mini memorial service. A member of the local religious community preached about the need to band together as a community. Amid simple prayers, the group wondered together how their city got so violent. It was a space to get angry and ask the hard questions: Why did he die? How could this happen? What’s next?
“During the service, students shared their experience of being a different race and how we can be in solidarity with each other,” Henry says. “It became a space for open dialogue and nonjudgmental conversations.”
Theologian Elaine Ramshaw calls ritual “a force for justice” in her book Ritual and Pastoral Care (Fortress Press). Liturgy creates the space for a community to challenge the status quo. It sends us forth to live what we preach. The closing prayer is often crafted as a commission, dismissing the community to proclaim the gospel by our lives. Macalintal says we start by paying attention to one another.
She explains, “The first act of social justice is a sense of mercy. Because of God’s mercy, we are called in the liturgy to go out and be even more attentive to one another and each other’s needs.”
On my own campus, the memorial service came and went. Candles were blown out, worship aids packed up. We arranged the chapel back to how it was before the service, before grieving students had gathered together to tell stories and cry and pray and wonder why. Classes resumed. Extracurricular activities continued. A visitor touring campus today would never know that the community just buried one of our own. Grief has a way of falling into the shadows.
Grief does not adhere to a neat timeline. While some students may be able to get right back into their normal routine after the death of a classmate, others may not be as quick to recover. Grieving students may withdraw to their dorm rooms. They may be unable to focus in class or fall into depression. Campus ministers, friends, and family must continue to care for students in the weeks, months, even years after a death and continue to ask students about their well-being. Send a quick email every few weeks or chat after a campus Mass. Be proactive and let them know they are not alone. Be present. Go to the grief. But above all, the community must keep returning to the liturgy. Keep coming back to ritual, a continued source of grace, hope, and healing.
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