Grieving teens need help, support to cope with loss
By Lisa M. Schab, L.C.S.W.
Facing death is difficult at any age. Teens usually have little or no experience with death, so they are often unprepared to handle the enormity of the experience. Already in the process of breaking away from their families, teens also have large holes in their emotional safety nets.
The most common deaths in an adolescent’s life are those of a grandparent, pet or peer. Because of their age, the death of a grandparent is not uncommon, and depending on how close the relationship is, a teen’s loss will range from minimal to major.
The loss of a pet is equally common. Most often, families get pets when the kids are young, which means the pets are nearing the end of their lives as the child reaches adolescence. This loss should not be minimized because it was “just an animal.” A dog or cat can be a trusted friend and companion, and your teen may not remember life without it. Losing a pet can feel like losing a part of one’s identity. It definitely means losing a part of one’s childhood.
The death of a peer is more unpredictable and unexpected. Because it occurs just as a teen’s relationships with his friends become his new support system, losing a friend can be the deepest loss a teen will encounter. The age similarity also means it may be the first time he is faced with his own vulnerability and mortality.
You can help your teen handle the grieving process by: • Teaching him about the nature of grieving. Grieving is not an orderly process; he may feel fine one day and devastated the next. Once the initial pain is over, he may think he is better, only to find himself crying unexpectedly without a moment’s notice. Elisabeth Kubler Ross, author of On Death and Dying: What the Dying Have to Teach Doctors, Nurses, Clergy, and Their Own Families, says there are five stages of grieving: denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance. Each person will progress through these stages in their own way, time and order.
• Model healthy grieving. This means accepting and expressing your feelings openly, using coping skills to keep from becoming overwhelmed and seeking appropriate help when you need it. Whether they like to admit it or not, teens are still learning from you. They will learn how to manage a loss the same way they will learn how to drive a car, manage a household or express anger: by watching how you do it.
• Participate in funeral events as comfort allows. Attending services can bring a teen the comfort of being with others who share his grief. He also experiences the loss concretely—seeing the body, hugging loved ones, listening to thoughts about the deceased—which makes the death real, and can bring a feeling of closure. Teens should be encouraged, but not forced, to attend any services, staying as long as they are comfortable.
• Give him a place to express his feelings. Many people try to push away the discomfort of grief, but expression is necessary for healing to occur. Find a place where your teen feels comfortable talking about his feelings, whether that be with you, his peers or professionals. Invite his friends over for pizza after the funeral or talk about your loss together as a family. If he is not comfortable talking, suggest that he write in a journal, write a letter to the deceased person or even write a personal eulogy for them. Allow your teen to shed tears. Crying is one of the healthiest physical and emotional releases he can experience.
• Continue healthy living. Encourage your teen to stay in a regular schedule of eating, exercise and sleep. It is normal for these patterns to be disrupted, but the grieving process is emotionally and physically draining. Maintaining his health will help him to manage his feelings.
• Create a memorial. Get your teen involved in having a park bench engraved in memory of his friend, or a tree planted for his grandparent. Let him plan a short back yard service for the family dog, or host a picnic at the ball park for his baseball star classmate. This helps him process feelings of sadness and helplessness.
• Look for “linking objects.” These are tangible items your teen can keep close at hand and “link” him to the person he has lost. They might include photographs, letters, articles of clothing, a special book, gift, key chain or something else that belonged to the deceased. The concrete object offers the comfort of feeling connected to the person who can no longer be seen or touched.
• Discuss spiritual beliefs. Religious beliefs offer a structure for thinking about death and can bring comfort. If your teen has strong beliefs, encourage him to remember them now, and seek support from your place of worship. If he is confused, his experience with loss may propel him to seek more information in this area. Help him find answers to his questions through spiritual services, books or counseling with spiritual leaders.
• Get help from outside sources. Local hospice programs offer support groups, counseling, and newsletters for the bereaved. Libraries and book stores carry materials designed specifically for helping people deal with grief.Lisa Schab is a licensed clinical social worker in Libertyville and the stepmother of two, ages 19 and 23.
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