We were 16 years old, finishing our sophomore year of high school. Among our biggest concerns were an approaching English final and our plans for the summer. It was about 10:00 on a Saturday night when Jack and I were leaving a friend’s house. I said, “I’ll see you tomorrow, Jack.” The next morning my mom sat me down. “I have some very bad news,” she said. “There was a terrible car accident last night.” Jack was dead.
Working your way through
Teens face many pressures, decisions, and problems as a normal part of growing up. When a death or other major loss occurs, it can turn their lives upside down. Aside from the death of a friend or family member, teenagers grieve other kinds of losses: changing schools, parents divorcing, friends moving away, the break-up of a relationship. How can a parent or other caring adult be supportive and provide a grieving teenager the necessary help? Let’s explore teenage grief and ways you can help the teen in your life, no matter what the loss.
- Remember it’s hard being a teenager. Think back to your teen years. Not only the good times and fun, but also the frustration and anxiety. Your teenager is experiencing many emotional, physical, and psychological changes. He or she is making decisions about tobacco, alcohol, sex, and drugs. The opinion of others and “fitting in” are major factors during adolescence. The teen years are hard enough without a major loss to complicate them.
- Be available and listen. Teenagers don’t always want to hear our advice. Try listening without talking. Listening quietly is often the best thing we can do. In fact, just allowing young people to express their feelings, without trying to stop them, will demonstrate that it is safe to vent with you. You can also try “active listening.” Simply listen to what your teen says and repeat back what you just heard. This will encourage your teen to continue talking. It communicates that you are really listening, sometimes teenagers often think adults don’t do. My mother held me while I wept like a baby after hearing the news about Jack. I can still hear her voice whispering in my ear, “I know it hurts. Just let it out. That’s it, just let it out.” Perhaps if called upon, you can do the same for a grieving teen.
- Learn about the grief process. There are some good resources that discuss teenage grief. In her book Life & Loss: A Guide to Help Grieving Children, Linda Goldman writes about four tasks associated with teenage grief work:
- Task # 1: Understanding and making sense of the death. Help your teen work through a factual understanding of the circumstances and the realities of the death.
- Task # 2: Grieving the loss. Grief can affect teenagers physically, emotionally, psychologically, socially, and spiritually. Watch for signs of anger, depression, lack of energy, and withdrawal. Be supportive, not critical or judgmental.
- Task # 3: Commemorating the life. Give teens creative opportunities to remember their loved one’s life and significance. Participation in a funeral or memorial service and creating tributes and memorials are wonderful ways to commemorate a life.
- Task # 4: Going on with life. In time, grieving teens will resume normal activities. It is important to eventually embrace life again without minimizing or forgetting the person who died.
“Teens need to know that their grief is respected and understood.”
- Expect to see changes. Teens naturally react to loss in a variety of ways. The more common reactions include:
- Physical Reactions: Stomachaches, headaches, loss of appetite, altered sleep patterns, disturbing dreams, and lack of energy are common physical reactions. Look for changes in your teen’s physical behavior. While these changes are usually normal and short-lived, consult a physician if they persist or become extreme.
- Emotional Reactions: Increased sensitivity, silence, and withdrawal are all possible emotional reactions. Grieving teenagers may experience fear, anger, guilt, regret, apathy, confusion, and loneliness. Be an empathic listener. Encourage teens to express their feelings. If depression and thoughts of suicide become evident, seek the help of a physician or therapist.
- Psychological Reactions: Missed assignments, declining grades, daydreaming, inability to focus or concentrate, and forgetfulness are all common. Inform your teen’s teachers and school counselor; they may temporarily lessen the academic load. Within several months, these reactions should diminish.
- Social Reactions: grieving teens may withdraw from family, friends, and activities. As this reaction is usually temporary, do not become overly concerned about it. However, watch for danger signs like associating with troubled peers, drug or alcohol use, and sexual or criminal activity. Seek professional help if these behaviors begin to surface.
- Spiritual Reactions: Grieving teens will often question what they previously believed. Withdrawal from or an increase in religious activities may occur. They may blame or become angry at God. Questions like, “Why did this happen?” “Why me?” and “Why her?” are common. Be an empathetic listener. Encourage teens to express their struggles. Don’t b judgmental. Realize teenagers need patience, love, and acceptance.
- Understand that some feelings are scary. I felt guilty about some circumstances surrounding Jack’s death. I was angry at myself, my parents, and God I had no idea how to handle those new and troubling feelings. What was worse, I did not feel I could talk about it. I was afraid others would not understand or be supportive. For several years I allowed those feelings to fester inside me. I made bad choices as a result. It was only when I felt free to talk about my anger and guilt feelings that I began to work through them. I found someone who loved me and accepted me no matter how I felt. You can be that person for a teen who is grieving. You can listen and help the teen work through their feelings before harmful decisions are made.
- Help teens express their grief. We learn our most valuable lessons in the classroom of life. Learning to express deep, gut-wrenching feelings is one such lesson. Use this opportunity to teach your teenager to express emotions in positive, nondestructive ways. Anger, for example, is not bad. It is a natural reaction to loss-people of all ages experience it. However, the ways we express anger can be destructive. We would never encourage hitting a younger sibling or breaking something. Help teens find positive alternatives. One teenager told me his parents bought him a punching bag to help him express his anger. The harder he hit it, the more anger he released. I know a girl who threw eggs against a tree to help release her anger after her boyfriend died suddenly. She told me she felt more anger pass with each egg she threw. We can encourage a teen to scream into a pillow, run in the park, or engage in other exercise. Teens can also write about their
feelings. Writing a poem, song, tribute, letter to the person who died, and journaling are good ways for grieving teenagers to express their innermost feelings.
- Take the team approach. Don’t think you have to do all this by yourself. Invite others to be involved. Seek help from your faith community. Talk to teachers, school counselors, family members, and friends. Try soliciting the help and insights of other teenagers. Check with your local funeral homes, hospice organizations, and telephone directory for professional grief specialists in your area. Some communities have centers that specialize in helping grieving children and teenagers. The Internet might also help you discover resources.
Here’s a newsflash: Teenagers can be understood! They are caught in a struggle between being children and becoming adults. They want to be respected and taken seriously. When death or another loss shakes their world, you can be a rock to cling to by listening patiently and showing love and acceptance as you help them work through their grief.
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