Not every youth who comes to your group makes it to Senior Sunday. Some of them are easy to write off of your conscience. He was a visitor anyway. She didn’t ever really plug in; it makes sense that she stopped coming. This one just didn’t like worship music. This one had better friends somewhere else. But every now and then someone who is genuinely committed and active in your ministry exits through an odd side door. A divorce takes a kid to a different town. A career or job change for a parent forces a sudden move. There’s not going to be a special service for that person, but you don’t want to just wave goodbye. What to do?
Last week I lost a youth this way. She was one of my “good ones.” (Obligatory reflection that all youth are “good youth” and none are superior, more helpful, or more likeable in any way in comparison to another.) She was quiet, cared about her faith, active in leadership, even played keyboard in the youth worship band. She was a freshman in high school, that age where you know you’re finally about to get to really know them because they’re finally beginning to figure out who they are. Her dad works as a consultant, a skill set that is immensely valuable when people are trying to hire you and a bit of desert when they’re not. A lot of it was contract work, and a couple of years ago it dried up a bit. He found something that worked for a while, but it didn’t really seem to be engaging his passions. Over the summer he found a terrific job. In Florida.
There’s no good time or age to pick up a kid’s life and move it. Once they’re aware of their surroundings and have established any kind of social order, it’s just too much of jolt to be reminded that they’re not really in control of anything. She took it really well, though. She didn’t get mad. She wasn’t hateful, either. Both would have been normal reactions. She really seemed to understand. They originally planned to move at the end of fall semester, but their house sold with implausible speed. She made homecoming court, so that became the new departure weekend.
I talked with our group about what we could do in the way of a gesture of sorrow/love/support. Cake apparently heals all wounds, so we went with a snacky farewell option. We wanted to do it on Wednesday, but she had to miss for homecoming practice. We shifted to Sunday morning, the day she was leaving.
I’m not certain we didn’t make the whole thing harder on her.
The first moment of real personal excellence for me came as we handed out the cake. We cut her an extra big slice, the corner piece that always has enough icing on it to give you enough diabetes to share with a friend. One of our kids handed it off to her with a cup of OJ. Less than a minute later, my departing dear one was standing in front of me, handing back her cake.
“I can’t eat this,” she said.
“What do you mean?” I asked.
“I can’t eat this. I can’t eat chocolate.”
Well, hell. So my last standing act as your youth leader was not only to hand you something you couldn’t eat, but also to reveal that I didn’t know you well enough to pick up on your food allergy to something as common as CHOCOLATE. Good work, Kev. Take the rest of the day off.
It got better. I had to leave the party to go upstairs, so I asked her for a hug. She’s not much of a hugger, so I knew it would be a quick one. As I left the room I heard the teacher asking “So what are some our favorite memories about our time with her?” “Oh, that’s a good idea,” I thought as I walked out.
No it wasn’t. One of leadership kids told me later that it hadn’t gone great. The Sunday school hour for our youth is always a tough room anyway. Add that to them not wanting to see her leave and the result was that everyone blanked on favorite memories about her. The teacher tried a different tactic, and asked her, “So what are you excited about in your move?”
The air apparently went out of the room at that point. I came back from my parent class and found her parents in the narthex. We talked for a few minutes until their daughter came out of Sunday school. She came over to give me another hug. Anticipating another quick one, I gave her a short squeeze and let go. Too late I realized that she wasn’t done hugging, and that she was actively crying. Which made mom start crying. The girl broke for the door. Now dad has tears in his eyes and says, “We’ll miss you, man,” before turning to follow his family out to the car. They drove off and sometime after lunch headed for a new life in Jacksonville.
High five. Nailed it.
What the heck do you do? If I didn’t have a relationship with that girl apart from the awkward way I tried to let our group say goodbye, I wouldn’t necessarily anticipate her ever wanting to talk to me again. How do you say goodbye well? Or at least not badly?
And this was a best case scenario. Great girl. Great family. Moving on to great things.
What do you do when you lose a kid because his family got evicted?
What about when you find out after the fact that you’ve lost somebody?
If it was easy, babies would do it and they wouldn’t need us.