Teenage Grief, by Rachel Hirsen
Before my placement at the SCV Youth Project, in my first year of graduate school at California State University Northridge, I had no experience running a support group. To my surprise, my first group was Teenage Grief (TAG). Facilitating this group has not only taught me so much about how to conduct a successful group therapy session but it has also provided me with incredible insight about teenagers and what they are looking for in a successful parent/child relationship. You’re probably thinking they’re looking for more lenient rules, a later curfew or a larger allowance … not always. What they have expressed to me, is much more meaningful than more freedom – the overarching theme not only in my TAG group, but also amongst my individual clients and other support groups, is the desire to hear and feel that they are loved by their parents.
With that being said, one of the consistent themes that comes up most in my TAG group often centers around the parents and the new family dynamic that comes from a significant loss. In the two semesters that I have facilitated this group, my students continually bring up that they feel as if their parents are not including them in their grief and the grieving process. Teens have reported feeling as if their parent is not willing to discuss the lost loved one. Numerous times, they have shared, “it seems like he doesn’t care anymore that Mom is gone,” or “she never wants to talk about Dad anymore.” Teens have shared, that when they reach out to a parent, they end up feeling as if they were shut down or turned away when they bring up the individual who passed. Even though it may be too painful for the parent to talk about the loss, the teen reads it as the parent telling him or her to “just move on already.”
Teens who are in the midst of mourning want to know that they are not alone; that their parents, (or parent) are still experiencing it as well. Being that both the parent and the teen get caught up in their own respective grieving processes, it is extremely difficult for either to realize that the other may need additional support. A parent withholding tears or feelings of grief from his or her child creates a divide that becomes increasingly larger with the passage of time.
Additionally, teens have expressed frustration, when the surviving parent wants him or her to focus more on school/raise their grades, to “stop using (mom, or dad) as an excuse for not getting a B on your test.” This is especially hurtful for the teen because he or she feels as if the parent is minimizing their feelings, and trying to force them to move through the grieving process quicker.
The biggest tips I can give to a parent or teen who is grieving is to listen, be open, and to let family members know how much they are loved and appreciated. In the wake of the loss of a parent, child, grandparent or sibling, it is easier to retreat into your own little world and expect everyone else to accommodate you. It is extremely important to remember that everyone grieves at their own pace, and in their own way. While we understand that sometimes “not talking” is less burdensome to the remaining family members, it can promote isolation; tt can result in teens feeling like they are the only ones hurting or still sad.
Thank You … it’s been a pleasure to work with your teens.
Some additional suggestions to help your teen.
- Allow the teen to grieve for as longs as they need to grieve. While for parents it can double the hurt of your own grief to see your son or daughter hurting, you need to allow them to feel it and help them find healthy coping skills. Having a healthy grieving time will allow your teen to come to feel the acceptance of the loss and give him the ability to remember the loved one without the hurt
- Encourage communication about the circumstances of the death and the teen’s feeling about it; allow them to express feelings of anger, sadness and guilt without judgment.
- Encourage communication about the deceased person and the impact that they had in the life of the teen. Encourage communication about the circumstances of the death and the teen’s feeling about it. Keep memories of the deceased parent alive through collecting mementos, journaling and other forms of self-expression. Keep pictures of the deceased parent on display in the home, and look at photo albums and videos together. Talk about times that might be difficult, such as birthdays, graduation, Mother’s Day/Father’s Day, Superbowl Sunday and other significant times, and discuss creating rituals around those times. Talk about how to prepare and get support during the year at those significant times.
- Understand their loss extends past the death of a loved one. Teens are learning where their place is in this vast world. The loss of a loved one shakes up a teen’s understanding of the world around them. This is especially true of teens who lose peers in accidents and similar losses.
- Establish or maintain healthy constructive habits and routines. This will help your teen feel normal and safe. It will remind them of the firm and loving foundation their family offers. Allow the teen to participate in the planning of funeral and memorial rituals and to attend those rituals.
- Encourage your teen to reach out for something bigger then himself. Group counseling services, youth group activities, talking with his/her spiritual leader, etc. All of these things have one thing in common, they allow your teen to understand that they are not alone in this world and others have gone through these hard times too.
- Watch for the serious warning signs of depression, such as consistently expressing negative beliefs about him or herself, extended disruptions in sleeping or eating patterns, extended poor academic performance, acting out or self-destructive behaviors, seek outside guidance from a professional.
- Freely express your own feelings of sorrow. Be gentle with yourself and continue to get the support you need for your own grief. There is NO SHAME in letting your child see you mourn the loss of a loved one; it is healthy modeling for them to see freedom of expression, sadness and coping. You are not adding to their grief by letting them see your sorrow, it’s healing and important for the grieving process to not feel alone in your emotions.