His name was Adriaan.
The theory may be that all students are created equal, but the practice is that you grow closer to some than to others. We were close, my husband and I, to him and his brother. Their mom joked at some point they spent so much time at our place, she should start paying us rent—or at least meal compensation.
Adriaan was a singularly gifted musician. He played the saxophone and he could make it sing. I’ve got dozens of pictures, recordings and videos of him playing in youth services and worship events. He loved music and he loved God and it showed.
He was exceptionally smart. He loved the verbal sparring with my husband. They’d talk about philosophy, theology, many other ‘ologies for hours after I lost interest.
He loved Jesus more than anything or anyone. I remember him talking about his faith on a video we made for an Easter celebration at his high school. Hundreds of students would see this video and he radically professed his faith in Jesus Christ.
He put it into practice as well. He got robbed once, only to visit the guy who robbed him in prison—to forgive him and give him a Bible.
He was also stubborn as all get-out. And we butted heads at times. About how he would put his feet up at our brand new couch (“Rachel, you shouldn’t care about materialistic stuff,” he’d rebuff). About the youth ministry (he always wanted to go deeper, further—not always realizing that he was way ahead of the others). About theology. About other stuff. But we loved him and he knew that.
Adriaan also suffered from chronic depression. And when I say ‘suffered’, I mean ‘suffered’. This was not a classic case of teen blues, or an identity struggle. This was a full-blown depression and he suffered greatly because of it.
He wanted joy, he wanted freedom, he wanted to live fully more than anything else. But there was that nasty illness that kept troubling him.
On this day, three years ago, we lost him. That week is without a doubt the most horrific week of my life. There are no words to describe what you experience when you see parents grieve for their 21-year-old son, when you see siblings in shock over losing their brother, when you see his friends being completely blindsided by what happened.
Adriaan’s death has changed me. I am no longer the same and I will never be the same again. Not because of missing him—which we do, but we had already moved away to Germany when he died. He had come to visit us a few months before he died and that last weekend with him was great. I look at the pictures we took of him and our son and I’ll be forever grateful for knowing him.
But losing a student, it changes you, even if he was officially a ‘former’ student. For a long time after Adriaan died, I was unable to worship. And it took me two years to forgive myself
for failing him feeling like I failed him. The ‘what ifs’ and ‘if I had only’s’ were hard to let go of.
There are thousands of Adriaans in youth ministries everywhere. As youth pastors, we need to do everything we can to take care of them and help them. Here are just a few things you can do for depressed students in your youth ministry:
- Take them seriously. Teen depression is a huge problem and while some teens ‘grow over it’, a lot of them don’t—or end up damaged and hurt because of how people react.
- Read up about depression so you know the symptoms, what to look for—and what you can do to help.
- If a teen is depressed, get him or her professional help. This is not a case for pastoral counseling, leave this to the professionals. By all means, set up a pastoral guidance process as well, but do both.
- Guard your own boundaries. You should not be nor feel primarily responsible for a student. Make sure to carry the load together with others. Get a sounding board for yourself if it’s gets hard for you.
- Refrain from using clichés. I know it can be really hard to figure out what to say if someone keeps ‘complaining’ about the same things month after month, year after year. So don’t say anything, except ‘I’m here’ and ‘I’m listening’. Oftentimes, you can’t say anything that will make them feel better anyway. And most clichés are untrue and even hurtful (like ‘give it time’—really not the solution with chronic depression. It’s there to stay…)
- Be very, very careful in your theological interpretation and possible solutions. Jesus is not always the answer—well, He is in the end, but that doesn’t mean He’s the Band-Aid that will take all the pain away in this life. Few students in my ministry were as dedicated to Jesus as Adriaan, but God did not take away his illness.
- Make sure there’s room in your youth ministry for illness, struggles, and pain. Does your worship time consist of happy-clappy songs alone, or is there ample time to wrestle, ask questions, or plain yell at God in frustration? (hint: read the Psalms) How about your sermon topics: do you leave room for unanswered questions, for pain? Are you vulnerable and open about your own struggles or do you present the Christian life as one big happy song?
This is the first time I’m writing about him and even as I’m writing this, I can barely see my keyboard through my tears. I still haven’t lost all my anger over his death and you better believe I have a lot of questions for God. My theology has changed for sure because of all this—and despite everything, I’m grateful for that, as it has become more real.
His name was Adriaan and I thank God that I knew him.