Pastoral Care after the Locusts: Mourning with Millennials

May 14th, 2018

“Has anything like this ever happened in your days, or in the days of your ancestors? Tell it to your children, and have your children tell their children, and their children tell their children. What the cutting locust left, the swarming locust has eaten. What the swarming locust left, the hopping locust has eaten. And what the hopping locust left, the devouring locust has eaten” (Joel 1:2-4 CEB). This Hebrew text identifies the types of locust: There’s the gāzām (the cutter; that which cuts off) and the chāsîl (the chewers, devouring palmerworms, cankerworms), which are both slow-moving but devastating. And then there’s the yelek (the eaters; that which consumes) and the arbeh (a swarm of locusts), which are fast-moving but just as deadly.[1] Facing the locusts of life, the prophet Joel invites us into the good life, which ironically begins with loss.

The millennial generation is intimately familiar with the locusts of life. Asked to reflect on loss, a youth group breaks a brief silence to share about a grandparent who died—an expected death. Others mention moving across state or country, a friendship that ended, a pet that died—other unexpected forms of loss. Soon their conversation turns to losses that weigh heavy and have gravitas. One teen tells of significant struggles with depression and loneliness after his parents’ divorce. A young woman about to leave for college tells of being in an emotionally destructive relationship for a number of years. She is addressing the damage this locust caused in her life. A fifteen-year-old tells the group about having been bullied at a previous school, how his grades began to drop, and how he sometimes has destructive thoughts. A number of the teens tell of a friend at school or a relative who committed suicide. One mentions school shootings, and they all nod. We fill a white board with a list of losses in little time—so pervasive are the locusts of lives for teens. This youth group is not unique in their experiences.

The locusts of life, whether slow- or fast-moving, awaken a sense of loss. Some locusts cause material loss, when things and places disappear or change; others cause relationship loss or systemic loss, when one no longer has a sense of belonging. Intrapsychic loss is the loss of a vision or a dream, a loss that is often deeply personal. Functional loss is when a part of the body no longer functions as intended, such as one’s brain when one is depressed. And role loss is when one’s role in a social network ceases.[2]

To help millennials work through mourning, we must see grief not as an abstract set of ideas but as something that we work through with our whole being. Grief theorist William Worden reminds us that thinking of stages of mourning is not helpful. Rather, he identifies four tasks of mourning:

  1. accepting the reality of the loss by resisting denying that the loss occurred;
  2. allowing ourselves to fully feel the pain and loss (and resisting finding “reasons” for why the loss happened, such as, “She is now in a better place.”);
  3. adjusting to a changed environment, as one cannot inhabit the same exact space after something or someone is missing; and
  4. relocating the emotional connection to the person who has died or left while moving on with life.[3]

I recommend five practices that can help you become a significant servant-leader to the next generation:

  • Practice awareness and recognize the pervasiveness of loss in people’s lives.
  • Practice empathy and express concern for the damage something invasive may have caused.
  • Practice mourning and encourage working through the tasks of mourning.  
  • Practice empowerment as you equip and inspire millennials and others to understand the concept of lamentation, as well as how to lament the losses of their lives.
  • Practice hoping, which is rooted deeper than optimism and allows us to imagine a new benign future, created by God, slowly unfolding.

“I will repay you for the years that the cutting locust, the swarming locust, the hopping locust, and the devouring locust have eaten,” says the Lord (Joel 2:25 CEB). Whereas dominant and anxious leaders seek to fix loss and frustrate God’s grace, significant leaders recognize loss and can help others engage in the work of mourning.

[1] See: Crenshaw, James L. Joel. 1st ed. The Anchor Bible. New York: Doubleday, 1995; Also: Assis, Elie. The Book of Joel: A Prophet between Calamity and Hope. New York: Bloomsbury T&T Clark, 2013.

[2] Kenneth R. Mitchell and Herbert Anderson. All Our Losses, All Our Griefs: Resources for Pastoral Care. 1st ed. Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1983.

[3] William J. Worden. Grief Counseling and Grief Therapy: A Handbook for the Mental Health Practitioner. 3rd ed. New York: Springer, 2009.

This article is adapted from Jaco Hamman’s forthcoming book The Millennial Narrative: Sharing a Good Life with the Next Generation, available from Abingdon Press in February 2019.

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