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 Grieving Teens: What Adults Need to Know

by Lisa Athan (printed in the Springfield Patch, 9/28/11)


One of the most common questions I am asked as a grief specialist is about helping a teenager after a loss. Parents often complain that their teens aren't communicating with them, or won't open up to them. Teens often say that they would open up more if their parents weren't so busy judging and criticizing them. Teens share that they feel that their parents are often out of touch, too busy to listen, too controlling or don't respect their privacy. Yet these same kids often want their parents to support them and offer some guidance when they are coping with tough stuff such as a loss. They also need time with friends and time alone. It is hard enough being a teenager, but to have to cope with grief as well can feel overwhelming at times.

Teens are trying to separate from parents and become more independent, yet after a loss they find themselves conflicted. They want to handle it on their own, yet often also want adult support, understanding and patience.

Grieving teens often will say things like, "Life sucks," "This is not fair that I have to go through this," "You don't really care about me," "My life wasn't supposed to turn out this way," etc. It feels unfair to a teen to lose someone close to them through death. Teens feel immortal; deaths of siblings, parents or friends can rock their world. Expectations are high and hormones may be raging. Adults are allowed to take some time off of work, college kids can drop out for a semester but teenagers have to go back to school and keep up the frantic pace of life, even after a loved one or friend has died.

Three feelings that make grief so hard for teens are anger, guilt and shame. They may be angry at the person who died who has now messed up their life. They may feel angry at the person for leaving them, angry at God for letting this bad thing happen, angry at their friends who still may have their loved ones and angry at the world for not getting how hard this is on them.

Teens often complain that their parents are micromanaging their lives. They want to know every move they make. They want to be in constant contact via cell phones. Teens often feel angry when adults treat them differently than they did before the death.

Guilt can cause a lot of pain for grieving teens too. Many teens feel guilty that they didn't spend more time with the person who died or regret that they weren't nicer. One 14 year old boy I met last year shared that he and his dad had a major blow up one night and hours later, his dad suffered a massive heart attack and died. This young man was full of regret that he never got to apologize to his father. I listened. I reminded him that it is normal for teens to fight with their parents and that didn't change the love that he and his dad shared. Sometimes teens feel guilty that they could have prevented the death. A college student shared with me last year that if only she hadn't invited her father to her college for dinner, he never would have been hit by the drunk driver on his way to her.

Shame also can cause much suffering for a teen. Many teens who experience a death feel very alone. Teens often hate feeling different, and losing a parent, sibling or friend can make them feel very different. They don't want to be known as the boy whose dad died or the girl whose sister was killed. This is especially hard when a loved one died by suicide, homicide or if the family member was driving a car in which others were killed.

How can adults help? Let teens know you are there for them, if you are.  "I am here for you, if you want to talk about it. I don't know how you feel." Teens need their losses acknowledged and validated, while at the same time they need reassurance that the intensity of their grief won't last forever. Teen bereavement groups can be great for teens. This will validate their feelings and help them to not feel so alone. Closed, monitored chat rooms online can also be helpful. Adults can really listen to their teens without judgement and refrain from trying to fix them or offer advice too quickly. Try to honor your adolescent's need for the avoidance of intense emotions. Help to create a safe space for your kids to open up and express themselves if they want to. Encourage your teen to have creative outlets. Such things as art, music, exercise, writing, hobbies, being in nature, volunteering, working for a cause, can be very helpful. Encourage them to come up with their own list of activities.

Teens feel their emotions strongly which can also scare them. Teaching them coping skills like breathing or progressive relaxation can help. Encourage them to drink water which is very important during grief. Going for a walk is helpful, or if in school a walk to the bathroom, to throw some cold water on their face, look outside a window, visit the school counselor or nurse. Music, yoga, meditation, prayer or napping are other things teens have shared with me that help. Sometimes screaming into a scream box (how to make a scream box on my website) or into a pillow, crying helps as it even lowers blood pressure, pulse rate and body temperature. Anything healthy that can reduce tension can be a good outlet.

Teens can guide their parents on how to help them by providing a list to parents on what helps. Things on the list may include: Talk about the loss, but in small doses. I want to know that we can talk about the death, that it isn't taboo. Ask me open ended questions, "how have you been since your friend died?"  Tell your parents that you hate lectures, especially when trapped in the car with them. Tell parents to accept what you may be feeling whether it be anger or survivor guilt or the feeling that life isn't fair.  Your parents can say they miss John today, but then just leave it at that.  If your parents need to talk about the loss, set a time limit like 15 minutes or less. Teens want their parents support especially now, when they may be feeling judged and criticized by others including some of their friends. Parents need to learn not to take everything a teen says or does so personally. Teens want some space and some freedom. They hate feeling smothered by parents. Teens want parents to keep talking to them, even if the teen isn't responding, they are still listening.

Many teens will find writing in a journal helpful. I was given about 100 journals written by a 17-year-old girl who lost her brother three years ago. She wanted to create a small journal for kids who also lost a loved one, so that they can grieve in the privacy of their own space and time. If you would like a copy let me know. It is called The Healing Jar. Some teens write letters to the person who died. They can read it at the cemetery, keep the letters, share with a counselor or friend, tie it to a helium balloon and let it go, call a hotline like 2nd Floor (888-222-2228) and speak anonymously to a trained counselor or visit their site: www.2ndfloor.org, make a collage of pictures and words from a magazine, that remind them of their loss.  Spend time with people who knew the person well who also want to talk about them. Some teens will find visiting with a deceased friend's family or friends helpful. Some will post memories on their person's Facebook page. Many parents who have lost teens or young adults share with me how touching it is for them to read the memories shared on Facebook. One mom told me that last Thanksgiving she was so comforted by one of her daughter's friends who had written on her Facebook Memorial Page, to her and her husband that she were thinking of them on that first Thanksgiving without "Karen". Her daughter, "Karen", had been killed in a motor vehicle accident a few months earlier. 

Teens often don't want to cry in front of others. Some teens try to forget about it and act like nothing happened and want to have fun again. Often this is followed by a feeling of guilt. Teens worry about having too little control over their emotions and wonder if their feelings are normal and which ones may mean they need help.

Teens can make a list of people to call or text if they need to talk. These are safe adults who will listen without judgement and who can offer helpful advice when needed. Teens can list a few places that make them feel safe. They can list a few activities that help them to feel better. They can list a few affirmations or statements that can help them get through the rough times.

Eventually teens may find or make meaning from their loss. Some teens who have lost a friend to drunk driving may become involved in MADD (Mothers Against Drunk Driving). Some will join a support group like Compassionate Friends (for bereaved parents and siblings). Some teens will start a group at school and educate their peers about whatever it was their person died of. Others' may start a 5K run in memory of a friend or loved one.

Teens find ways to keep those connections to the person who died. Some listen to their person's favorite music, TV show or eat a favorite meal. Sometimes teens talk about a place their loved one liked so when ever they are at the beach they think of them. This summer while I ran the sharing circles at Camp Clover, a free, week long bereavement day camp, many teens shared about feeling their loved one was always near them or watching over them which helped them a lot.

Two weeks ago I was flown out to Minnesota to help support a grieving family and community who had lost a caring and loving ten year old little girl through a tragic accident this past July.  I did presentations to all of the students K-12, as well as the faculty and adults in the community.  I heard many of the students share that they will always miss yet feel a connection to their dear friend Kenzie, whenever they treat another child with kindness as she was always so nice to everyone. They also said she loved life and many wore green, glow in the dark rubber bracelets that read: Live, Love and Laugh Like Kenzie Raeh. What a wonderful way to keep connected to the memory of their dear friend. I am still wearing the one they gave to me. Whenever I notice it, although I never met Kenzie, I remember the wonderful stories about this precious ten year old who touched many, many lives in her ten short years and she inspires me to be a little kinder. Also reminds me to never take anything for granted.

More ways to keep the connection:

Go to their favorite restaurant or cook their favorite meal. Celebrate their birthday with family and friends. Write songs or poems about them. On the anniversary of the person's death, spend the day doing things they enjoyed doing. Create Web pages in their honor. Burn CD's with their favorite songs or make a play list and share with friends and family. Volunteer for an organization or cause your loved one believed in. Wear something that was theirs or carry it in your pocket. And perhaps to celebrate your person's life, do something you've always wanted to do but haven't yet done.


"It's like your in a foreign country now and you were just dropped there, and now you have to learn to make yourself adapt to this new world and this new way of life, and it's not easy." Lauren and Kerri Keifer, who lost their older brother, a firefighter who was murdered in the September 11th World Trade Center attacks, said.

Helpful books on grieving teens:

The Grieving Teen: A Guide for Teenagers and Their Friends

Teen Grief Relief: Parenting with Understanding, Support and Guidance by Dr. Heidi Horsely and Dr. Gloria Horsley




Grief is no cliche

by Lisa Athan (Printed on NJ.Com)

When we don't know what to say to someone who has suffered a loss, we may be tempted to turn to an old, worn-out cliche. But in our attempt to be helpful, we may wind up saying something hurtful and leave the person feeling more pain or frustration.

Here are some common phrases that participants hear all too often and share with me at my workshops on grief and loss.

"I know how you feel". No, you do not know how anyone else feels. This statement only makes people angry and may shut them down from sharing exactly how they do feel. Everyone has his or her own feelings. Even if you went through something similar, it still gives you no right to tell someone that you know how he or she feels. Just acknowledge their feelings and listen to their unique story.

"It's God's Will": This may be your belief but you don't know what the griever believes or how he or she feels about God at this moment. Many people grow in faith after a loss but others get angry at God, question their beliefs, or lose faith completely. Many can't accept this terrible loss as part of a caring God's will. Keep this thought to yourself.

"Your loved one is in a better place. They don't have to suffer anymore." The griever already knows that the loved one isn't suffering anymore, but they are! They are left to often feel selfish for their own suffering. They also may question, 'how can my child, spouse, parent' be in any place better than here with me? Children in particular have trouble wondering why a parent would leave them to go to a better place, or wonder how they failed in making this a good enough place. Also don't assume that others share your belief in a "better place." This statement causes so much pain to so many.

"You have to be strong." This is often told to children, and to adults caring for children. Many people don't feel strong after a loss and find it hard enough to be strong enough to make it through each day, let alone worry about being strong for others. People hear this as "don't cry," or "show any emotion." This can be very damaging and stop the grieving process. It may also imply that no one will be there to support them in their pain and sorrow.

"Keep your chin up." When all a person may want to do is cry, scream, yell, sob, rage and collapse, they do not need someone to tell them to stop all of that emotion and just carry on as before. It is important to grieve and mourn.

"You had many great years together. You should be grateful." Many would give anything, make any bargain, to have more years together. Grateful may be the last thing they feel at this time. There are also people who did not have great years, and we can't assume always that they did. Some people had abusive relationships that seemed great, but they actually lived a secret life. These folks often are left to feel more alone and isolated in their pain.

Please don't tell people how they should feel. Listen instead to how they do feel and acknowledge that. Remember that our quiet presence is a gift to a griever, and often doesn't require a lot of words. Allow those around you to grieve, and they will allow you the same when it is your time.

Children do grieve

by Lisa Athan
2008 (NJ.Com)

Grief is an expression of love. If a child can love, he or she can grieve. Children are used to having a full range of emotions. Think about a three year old throwing himself on the floor in the grocery store. He is angry and shows the world his feelings. Children know what it is to feel angry, sad, afraid, lonely and confused and have no difficulty expressing it. So why should children experiencing loss through death of a loved one, behave any differently.

Children have different responses to grief based on such things as: their relationship with the person who died, their understanding of death, their developmental level, the circumstances of the death, and the ability of the adults around them to be present, communicate and support them emotionally.

Some children want to talk about their loss all the time, others not at all, and many somewhere in between. Some won't talk about their loss until months or years later. Some children will only remember wonderful things about the person, others may hate them for leaving and abandoning them. Some children sob uncontrollably, while others appear to be without emotion. Some may even laugh and act uncaring. Some will feel guilt as they blame themselves for the death and may get themselves into trouble so that they can be punished. Some will blame others or God, the doctor, the funeral director or family members. Anger is a common emotion in grief. We can listen and help children find healthy outlets for their anger, such as writing, drawing, talking, music, art, exercise, ripping up old phone books, or punching a punching bag.

Children grieve in spurts. They can only be with intense feelings for a short duration before needing distractions or breaks. A child may cry or be angry and then want to go out and play ball and laugh. Children's reactions are all different. Grief does not move through stages nor is there a timetable. Children also don't want people to feel sorry for them or to treat them differently. Children often act out their grief through their behavior more than through words.

Sometimes well meaning adults say unhelpful and hurtful things to grieving children such as, "Be strong. Don't cry. You are now the man of the house. It is time you move on." This only adds to feelings of isolation, lonliness, and even shame within the child.

It is helpful to allow children to cry. Sobbing can even help children express their despair,as they move from shock into realization that their loved one will not be returning. Adults can model healthy grieving and mourning. It is okay to cry in front of children. Many families say the most connected they felt to each other was when they all cried together.

Rabbi Earl Grollman, author of Bereaved Children and Teens wrote," Grief is not a disorder, a disease, or a sign of weakness. It is an emotional, physical, and spiritual necessity- the price you pay for love." Adults need to companion children on their grief journey's and to grant young people permission and safety to grieve and together find healthy ways to mourn.

What period is grief class?

by Lisa Athan

Loss is a part of life. We lose relationships, people we love, things, dreams, abilities, trust and more, yet we rarely are formally taught about grief and loss. I am amazed that we don't teach grief and loss in schools, although our children are grieving and sometimes turning to unhealthy means to deal with their grief. I believe that grief underlies many of the current youth issues today.

One of the things I do as a grief educator is to go into classrooms and speak to students about grief and loss. I often hear students say, "finally, a talk about something that we all can relate to. Why don't we talk about things like this more often in school?" I tell them that I wonder too. I know that children in school deal with loss on a daily basis. They lose friends, pets die, have a sibling with autism, have a grandparent with Alzheimer's or struggle with a learning disability. Others may get bullied, rejected, deal with ill family members, addiction in the family or deal with parents' divorce, just to name a few examples.

Students ask me how they can help themselves as well as their friends, siblings, and parents. They want to know what is normal in grief and how does one live through such pain without turning to addictions. They talk about guilt and regret, ask if it is normal to never cry or cry a lot, and wonder if numbness is normal. Others ask me how to help a friend who is in trouble but refuses help, what to say to a friend who has a dying parent, and ask for healthy ways to express feelings like anger and rage.

Many students say that these are great classes because they are relevant and real. One student wrote, "I feel like death and grieving are taboo in our culture. It really helps to hear someone talk about it and how to cope and help a friend." Another wrote, "I think children should take grief classes from the time they are a small child until graduating high school, if not longer."

Grief and loss education would allow children to grow up with useful knowledge, tools, and an emotional vocabulary. Empathy, patience, tolerance and compassion would be units as well as coping skills and healthy mourning. Students would learn about integrating loss, meaning making and growth that often follow loss. Imagine the difference schools could make if grief and loss education was part of the standard curriculum.

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