I knew it would be a bumpy ride when I read the question submitted by a teen for a group discussion at summer camp concerning the fear of death.
I settled into my chair and looked around the group of teenage boys and girls with their counselors. One had just recently experienced a suicide in her family. I recognized another teen who a few years earlier had lost a family member in a tragic auto accident. I didn't know the other kids, but I could see they wanted to talk.
So I opened it up for discussion. "What do you understand about death?" I asked. These teens were attending a church camp and came from families who lived their lives according to Scripture, so their answers weren't surprising. They were familiar with what the Bible teaches about what happens at death, understanding that the dead are not disembodied souls in heaven or hell and that they have no conscious awareness at all (see the Bible study guide What Happens After Death? ).
This and other thoughts came out as we went around the room. They understood what the Bible says about death, and this became evident as several of them talked.
From sorrow to hope
After several comments I opened my Bible and turned to 1 Thessalonians 4 and began reading the apostle Paul's encouragement to a group of Church members who had experienced the tragic loss of close friends back then in the first century. Paul wanted to calm their fears and chose his words carefully: "But I do not want you to be ignorant brethren, concerning those who have fallen asleep, lest you sorrow as others who have no hope" (1 Thessalonians 4:13).
Three words jump out in this passage. They are ignorant, sorrow and hope. Misunderstanding about what happens at death creates a knowledge gap that leaves one grasping for something to believe during the period of shock and grief that follows the death of someone close. Paul knew these people were in grief, and he didn't say anything to indicate this sorrow was wrong. He knew they would grieve, but his emphasis was on giving them hope.
He then went on to give that hope: "For this we say to you by the word of the Lord, that we who are alive and remain until the coming of the Lord will by no means precede those who are asleep. For the Lord Himself will descend from heaven with a shout, with the voice of an archangel, and with the trumpet of God. And the dead in Christ will rise first. Then we who are alive and remain shall be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air. And thus we shall always be with the Lord. Therefore comfort one another with these words" (1 Thessalonians 4:15-18).
Here Paul lays out the truth about what happens at death, it being compared to sleep, and how the resurrection of the dead and bodily transformation of believers still living at Christ's return will take place. When fully understood, this passage helps us deal with feelings of fear and loss at the death of those we love.
Getting to the heart
I explained this key verse to help them see that God is compassionate and understanding of our fears concerning death. But after another round of comments by these teens, who agreed with and understood this biblical truth of the resurrection, I could see that something wasn't resonating with them. They weren't to the point where this knowledge could help them move on.
So I decided to take it in a different direction. "What is really on your hearts?" I asked. I realized we were dealing with emotions at the most fundamental level of the heart. After some discussion I caught the eye of a young girl across from me who obviously had something to say. Through sobs and tears with a halting voice she revealed to us her guilt from not doing more for a friend who had committed suicide.
"If only . . ." is a mantra for us when we're left with regret and broken feelings that have to be mended. Friends and family can take steps to help a young person pull back from the abyss of death. However, there are also times when nothing we do will prevent someone from taking that step off into darkness. Life becomes so painful that in their minds the only solution is to end it.
I told her that she cannot continue on with regret over what she thinks she could've or should've done. I explained that her life must go on and she has to move away from the tragedy and pull its tentacles from off her mind. She needed to realize that she did what she could at the time and that she should learn from the event and move on with her life. "You'll be in a wiser place next time you see similar signs in someone," I said. "Then, because of what you've learned, you'll be in a better position to help."
Guilt over something you cannot go back and change is a useless emotion. Rather than being immobilized in the present by guilt, we must move on. The best response you can make in the wake of suicide is to make something of your life.
Live today with meaning and purpose. Choose to live out your life with God at its center. Live so that when you see your friend in his or her next waking moment in the future resurrection of those who have not yet really comprehended God's truth, you can extend the hand that will help your friend choose life instead of death.
In that room full of teens we had a big moment of concentrated focus going on. When an effort was made to move to a different topic, they made it known that they weren't done talking about death and their feelings. So we continued on.
Story after story came out. At one point I asked for a show of hands: "How many of you have experienced the death of someone very close to you?" More than two-thirds of the hands went up. I was shocked! Perhaps I shouldn't have been, but I was. It's a sign of our times that death has become so commonplace to a group so young. Teens today live much closer to a culture of death than I did when I was growing up.
The session began to wind down. The tears dried up. Emotional exhaustion had set in. I could sense that we needed to close it out and move on. I summed up the main points of what we had discussed and again reminded them of the hope of the resurrection. But I also told them that they must learn to deal with the here and now and walk away with understanding.
What did I learn?
A few things became clearer to me through this session.
• I learned that young people who have experienced the untimely death of a friend have to talk about it. They need to process their grief with friends and understanding adults whom they trust.
• I learned that with young people, doctrinal truth is not enough. They live in the here and now, and when they face a death they hurt now. This really applies to all of us at a time of loss, but it is more acute with the young. While they have most of their lives stretching out ahead of them, it's difficult for them to see beyond the moment—a contributing factor to so many taking their lives by their own hand. The rest of us need to understand this perspective and meet them where they are in the moment.
• I learned that it's vital to young hearts to have a safe place to discuss their fears and feelings about death. Let them talk. Hear what they're saying, and listen to what they're feeling. That's the only way they will process the grief and pain through to closure. Learn to recognize that moment and treat it very carefully.
• Reflecting back on the session, I further learned the deep meaning of Hebrews 2:14-15, which tells us that Jesus Christ shared in the fullness of the human experience. Through His death He destroyed "him who had the power of death, that is, the devil" so He could "release those who through fear of death were all their lifetime subject to bondage."
In this verse lies the answer to the issue that started our discussion. We can be released from the fear of death and not be held in the emotional chains that keep us from living. My final advice to the kids was to choose a culture of life over death.
It was a bumpy ride, but along the way we managed to smooth out some of the road. I closed with a line from a cowboy western. Stories of the Old West often deal with the subject of death, and one movie scene brought this to mind. While standing over the grave of a friend who died tragically while crossing the Rio Grande, one of the characters says, "The best way to deal with death is to ride away from it."
It's good advice. Ride away from death. Take hope and comfort in the words of Paul to the Thessalonians, and choose to move on with life and make yours count!