Sarah's parents became concerned about their 15-year-old daughter's ongoing distress over the death of a classmate in a car accident. Though losing one's life at a young age is always tragic, this accident was all the more terrible because the car's driver, a high school junior who survived, had been drinking.
Appropriately, the school brought in grief counselors, offering support groups, educational sessions and individual counseling as needed. After a couple of weeks, the school community moved toward normalcy, but not Sarah. She spent long, teary hours with her friends dwelling on the circumstances of the accident and poring over various interactions with the classmate, analyzing what they'd meant. Part of what baffled Sarah's parents was that the classmate had been a distant rather than a close friend, yet Sarah felt the friend's death deeply. Did Sarah's struggle represent a red flag, her parents wondered? Not necessarily.
Like adolescence itself, teen grieving has characteristics all its own. Compared to young children, the implications of death sink in more fully for teens. They're more likely to identify with the death or the dying process and to ponder seriously their own mortality for the first time.
At a time when they might benefit from mom's or dad's wisdom and perspective, teens are also individuating from them (i.e., making a self of their own). Because this process involves pulling away from parents and seeking privacy, they're less likely to pursue parents for help with their upset and confusion over death. Moreover, many teens are questioning the religious and spiritual values of their upbringing, leaving them even more vulnerable.
Compared to adults, not only do teens have less -- if any -- experience with death, but the death of a peer feels out of sync. Biologically, teens are in the midst of hormonal surges and brain development changes. They are capable of moments of very sophisticated, rational thinking, only to revert to the "magical" thinking of childhood. Without any basis in reality, teens can feel guilty or responsible, inventing implausible rescue fantasies: "If only I'd been a better friend." "If only I'd invited her over, she wouldn't have been in the car that night." "If only I'd warned her about that." Grown-ups may have some of these same reactions, but their adult brains are better wired to stop the spiraling. For teens, feelings of guilt and responsibility are magnified when the friend dies by suicide or violently, as in a car accident.
Many faces of grief
Sarah's parents realized that their daughter's extended upset over her classmate's death was aligned with Sarah's high-strung nature. Grieving varies among teens, depending on personality, culture, family characteristics, past losses, age, support systems and the circumstances of the death. Whereas Sarah had personalized the friend's death ("It could be me!" "It could be my mom next!"), another teen with a more resilient or stoic temperament may look less emotional, no matter how close the loss. We can't assume that because a teenager hasn't cried or expressed a lot of feelings that he/she hasn't grieved "properly," since people deal with loss in myriad ways.
Teen's emotions may range from anger, fear and blame to exhaustion and disbelief. Bereavement is often a messy process for teens. They may act "out," putting their feelings into impulsive actions, or they may act "in," becoming anxious or depressed, especially if grief triggers an acute awareness of other deaths.
The important thing is not to judge a teen's grieving process over a friend's death as either being too dramatic and over-reactive or too detached and unfeeling. Rather, parents should appreciate that a teen's reaction is likely to be characteristic of the teen. Another pitfall is that parents sometimes underestimate the blow of a friend's death. If the loss were a sibling, a parent or other close relative, parents are ready to do what it takes to mobilize support, but parents are generally less attuned to the impact of a friend's death.
Coping with the death of a loved one is difficult at any age, and teens are already challenged by the burden of their complicated mental, emotional and social worlds. Pain is generally more bearable when shared with others, but not always and not necessarily with parents. Most teens prefer to process the loss of a peer with their friends, since it's their shared experience, but parents can still play an important role in the support system.
Because it is constructive and leads to a resolution, healthy grieving involves remembering the friend and finding joy in living on. Parents should be on the lookout for unhealthy grieving, where a teen becomes stuck and preoccupied with the death over a prolonged period and is unable to get back into the groove of daily living. If a teen shows signs of depression or suicidal feelings, or begins risk-taking, the loss should be addressed more directly and evaluated professionally. Parents can be role models for healthy healing by naming the loss, expressing their feelings and showing that they're open and on hand, but should take care not to overdo their helpfulness, which can become intrusive. It's a delicate balance. Although many experts advise parents to ask "open-ended" questions such as, "How are you doing with your feelings of loss of ____," many teens will feel invaded by this directness.
Swirling in indirectly usually works better. Parents can mention something related to the loss such as, "I was remembering ____ today and thought about ____. Do you remember that?" Even if the teen doesn't pick up on this cue, the parent has at least shown that they're available, able to cope with grief and are not contributing to the taboo of death as too dark and fearsome to address.
If a teenager is having spiritual doubts but shuts parents out, they can encourage him/her to explore their questions with other adults they respect -- clergy, professionals, relatives, teachers. Grieving rituals, especially on birthdays and anniversaries, often provide solace.
Above all, parents should stay calm, patient, respectful and connected to their teens as they grieve, reassuring them that time heals and showing that the natural adversities of life can be faced. Laura Kastner, Ph.D., a clinical psychologist, and Jennifer Wyatt, Ph.D., a writer, are the authors of The Launching Years: Strategies for Parenting from Senior Year to College Life (Three Rivers Press, 2002) and The Seven-Year Stretch: How Families Work Together to Grow Through Adolescence
Teen grief resources
- Crisis Clinic: 24-Hour Crisis Line: 866-4CRISIS (866-427-4747). Crisis Clinic also offers "Where to Turn Directories," with information on more than 950 local health and human services agencies, $8.
- Teen Link, for teens who want to speak confidentially with another teen: 866-TEENLINK.
- Safe Crossings: A service of Providence Hospice of Seattle, dedicated to helping children prepare for the death of someone they love. 206-320-7219.
- All Kids Grieve: An online resource for teachers, parents and counselors. Links include Northwest Resources, Support Group Start-Up Guidelines, and Grief/Loss Booklist.
Recommended Books for Teens
- I Will Remember You: What to Do When Someone You Love Dies: A Guidebook through Grief for Teens, by Laura Dower and Elena Lister
- Straight Talk About Death for Teenagers: How to Cope with Losing Someone You Love, by Earl Grollman
- Healing Your Grieving Heart for Teens, by Alan Wolfelt
- When a Friend Dies: A Book for Teens About Grieving and Healing, by Marilyn E. Gootman
- The Grieving Teen: A Guide for Teenagers and Their Friends, by Helen Fitzgerald
- Teenagers Talk about Grief, by June Cerza Kolf
Originally published in the March, 2005 print edition of ParentMap.