If you are reading this, you have a teenager who has experienced the death of a relative or friend. Your child is in pain and you are trying to figure out how to help. As a parent, it is so difficult to see your child in such pain. Teenagers by nature of where they are in their development are often emotional even when they aren’t grieving, so death only serves to multiply the normal angst and emotional struggles of adolescence.
Mary Ann Emswiler says this, “If you are raising a grieving adolescent and find yourself at your wit’s end, you are not alone. There may be no more difficult period of life during which to lose a loved one than adolescence. It can wreak havoc within the teen himself and within the family. Confusion reigns as the teen struggles to deal with his grief and the rest of the family struggles to deal with the teen.”
My mother in law died this week after a brief illness. One of the hardest things I’ve ever done was watch my daughter say goodbye to her beloved Grandma before she died. Then, I had the awful task of telling her that her that her beloved Grandma had died. I then had the awful task of telling her that their beloved grandmother had died. So how did the week go? It has been hard and good and then hard again. I’ve made mistakes and had the instinct to do things that really helped. In short, supporting my grieving teenager was messy and challenging. Supporting your grieving teenager will be too.
Here are a few things that I learned that you might find helpful in supporting teens through a death:
Follow your child’s lead. They know what they need. Respect their need for space or time with friends. Even if you have good communication with your teen they may not be comfortable talking with you about their feelings.
Expressing grief isn’t always done by talking. Teens may express and cope with their grief by writing poetry, exercising, writing, artistic expression or listening to music. They may seek ways to help others by doing practical things like raising money or supporting others who are grieving. Adults, especially moms, are much more likely to try to get their children to talk about their feelings. It is good to create opportunities for this without forcing it.
Grief happens in doses. Your child will appear to be fine for a while and then will have another burst of grief. Grief is like the weather. It changes and you can’t control it and neither can your teen.
Behavior is information. Grief is an emotionally reactive experience for teens. They can be irritable, lose their tempers, isolate themselves, and engage in power struggles with you. So while their behavior may appear “bad”, it may be their way of expressing their pain. Provide empathy for the feeling behind the behavior while setting limits. If you have found yourself “acting out” instead of talking about your grief, it is helpful to share that with your teen. This normalizes this very common reaction and may lead to more open discussions.
Grief may impact them at school in their classes and in their relationships with their friends. Consult with your school guidance counselor. While teens may not want to be pulled out of class they may appreciate a way to leave class if they are hit with a wave of grief or a way to seek help on their own terms as needed. Teachers may need information that your child’s school work may be affected by grief. Your child may have difficulty concentrating or doing assignments. All of these are normal responses. Be an advocate for your child.
Give as many choices as possible. Do they want to be involved in the planning of the service or funeral? Do they want to spend time with relatives or friends or hang out at home?
Don’t lecture or assume you know what they are experiencing. Even though they are young, teens are the experts on their own grief. It is hard, but try to take the role of learner rather than expert. Say things like, “What’s this been like for you?” or “Tell me about today.” Asking questions during times when they don’t have to look at you (while driving or watching T.V.) will often help them talk more.
Be proactive. Ask your teen to let you know if they need help from you so you don’t have to keep asking. Ask them to let you know if you make a mistake. Ask them to let you know if they have questions.
Offer information. Knowledge is power. Helping your child know what to expect, providing details about the death, and letting them ask questions will help them feel some degree of control in the face of the powerlessness that accompanies the experience of loss.
Ask your teen what they want. I made a mistake the day after my mother-in-law died when some of my daughter’s best friends texted me to ask if they could come over. Without checking with her, I said they could. When they left, my daughter told me that she would have preferred some time alone.
Apologize when you make a mistake. (Which I did.) This is good parenting at any time, but especially important when your child is grieving. You want your relationship to be free of any obstacles so they can reach out to you when they need to.
It’s okay for you to grieve in front of your child. I was blessed to have an amazing, loving mother-in-law, so I certainly did this week. Hiding your grief doesn’t do your child any service. Your ability to grieve sets an example for them that it is normal and necessary. It helps them develop compassion for you and others. The key is not to make them the primary ones responsible for helping you with your grief. Get help from friends or family, a grief support group, or grief counselor which models for them that asking for help is a good thing and not a sign of weakness.
Help your teen know their resources. If they were to create a grief app for their iPhone, who would be some of the people and what would be some of the things to do that would provide help or support. It truly does take a village to help a teen through this hard time.
Get information on grief and teens. One of the best books out there is Weird is Normal. Teens who are grieving are often very self-conscious. Teens want to be like everyone else and the death of a loved one makes them feel different. Here are a few other suggestions: The Grieving Teen : A Guide for Teenagers and Their Friends by Helen Fitzgerald, Straight Talk about Death for Teenagers: How to Cope with Losing Someone You Love by Earl A. Grollman, and Healing Your Grieving Heart for Teens: 100 Practical Ideas by Alan Wolfelt. If you are concerned that your child may need additional help, consult with a grief counselor.
There is the good news. When teens get support after the death of a loved one, when they realize that grief is normal, when they can find ways to express that grief, they will become more resilient and compassionate. Learning how to grieve is a necessary part of learning how to cope in a world where loss is inevitable and pain cannot be avoided. It is one of the more painful things we will help our children learn, but one of the most important.