My heart joined hundreds of sad hearts this week as I learned of the death of Palmer Maphet, a sophomore at Tennessee Tech University who was serving as a missionary in Maine through Baptist Collegiate Ministry. Palmer and his team were traveling to minister at Laconia Motorcycle Week in Laconia, New Hampshire, when a car accident ended his life on earth.
I met Palmer on February 6 at a Freshmen Retreat that he coordinated. His leadership and organizational skills, quick smile, and the ability to talk and ice-skate simultaneously were impressive. I grieve this loss, only knowing him a short time. My heart hurts for his family, mission team, friends, BCM, and track team.
Many college students like Palmer—Brian, Sandy, Tom, Brad, John Wesley, Greg—have died young, leaving behind dreams, ministry plans, and grieving family and friends. While none of us ever want to be the bearer or the recipient of such horrific news, those who have walked this path have wisdom to share on how to most effectively and compassionately lead your students through times of grief.
The God Talk
- Do more listening and loving than speaking. Save your best devotional thought for later.
- Allow Scripture to speak for itself. Writing or speaking a verse of comfort can be very helpful, without your added interpretation specific to the grief situation.
- God’s grace is often best delivered through simple, thoughtful acts. I lost a baby years ago, and my well-meaning Christian friends had many flowery words to share. But God’s grace was delivered powerfully to me through a bouquet of lovely spring flowers with only one word printed on the card—Paul. Paul was a college student involved with the ministry I led who knew that less was more. He knew because he, too, had experienced loss, the death of both of his parents. His signature was all that was needed.
- Share a book for later. Getting Through the Night: Finding Your Way After the Loss of a Loved One by Eugenia Price is a great book to keep on your shelf to give to grieving college students and families. It’s hopeful and full of Scripture. It’s short—grief takes work, so long books usually are too much for one in the midst of grief—and inexpensive.
- Contact the family in an appropriate way, depending on your role and relationship to the student. Don’t get in the way or be demanding of time, but make contact soon. Ministry of presence early on is hugely helpful.
- Help the family get any and all information possible, as soon as possible. Weaver McCracken, director of the collegiate ministry department of the Mississippi Baptist Convention Board, encourages ministries to help the family travel to the site of the loss, providing financial support to make this happen. “This helps the family better understand how this happened and where it happened,” McCracken acknowledged.
- Encourage college students and others connected to the loss to gather factual information prior to communication via text, Facebook, etc. Misinformation can easily be spread quickly in a tragedy situation. Joe Graham, collegiate ministries specialist for the Georgia Baptist Convention, notes, “If I’m with a group in the midst of a tragedy, the first thing I’ll ask is for everyone to turn off their electronics. Someone has to assess the situation and contact relatives and other vital contacts.”
- Help the family know you remember and you care, long after the loss. McCracken said, “I have Greg Gomez’s birthday in my permanent calendar, so I will remember. I also have noted how old he will be each year, so I can contact the family with knowledge of things that are doubtless on their minds. He was one of ours. We own the loss and always will.”
- Have a plan that allows the students to process and remember, particularly the first year. Daniel Berry, baptist collegiate ministry director at the University of Kentucky, planned opportunities which gave students chances to pause and remember their friends Brad and Tom. A memorial 5K run was one of the many meaningful opportunities for students.
Address Your Personal Grief
- Find other college ministers who have experienced the loss of a student in their collegiate ministry who understand and will listen. Berry remarked, “Shock/responsibility will keep you going for the first week or two. As time goes on and you are grieving, it can be very lonely. You can feel like no one remembers your students and wonder things like, ‘How can this world be functioning like normal?’ Darrell Cook [BCM director at Virginia Tech] provided immeasurable help in my life.”
- Be patient and gracious toward yourself as well. Grief takes time, even for a college minister.
- Wayne Oates’ book Grief, Transition, and Loss: A Pastor’s Practical Guide can be a helpful read for you.
- Go to sleep each evening and wake up each morning remembering your hope in heaven, in eternity, in Jesus.