Sophie’s dad died when she was 13 years old. Her mom, Melissa Gould, recently wrote the book Widowish, sharing how they coped with the loss of her husband, Joel, and offering advice for other parents who are helping a teen cope with the death of a parent.
Gould credits needing her daughter for helping her maintain a schedule after her husband died. “Sophie is what kept me on track. She needed to be at school and had a full life,” she says. “If I didn’t have her to focus on, I don’t know if I would have gotten out of bed every day.”
Clare Bidwell Smith, a grief counselor and author of Anxiety: The Missing Stage of Grief says that a teen’s grief comes in stages when a parent dies—but not the typical five stages of grief. “You will see a teen revisit that loss in their late 20s early or 30s because that is when they are fully developed enough to understand what the loss was about,” she says.
Bidwell Smith explains that a lot of people don’t understand how teens process grief. “You will see a teen not grieve in a way that you think that they should, or not grieve in an obvious way,” she explains. “That makes a lot of people uncomfortable or nervous that they are not grieving or not facing it when really they are not fully capable of grieving.”
4 Ways to Help Teens Cope with the Death of a Parent
Similar to an adult losing a spouse, peer support helps teens cope with the death of a parent.
“They really need to be around other teens who have gone through a similar loss,” Bidwell Smith says. “They relate to their peers and they see themselves through their relationships with them.”
Gould says that meeting other kids who have lost a parent helps normalize the experience. “Once I met other widows and realized there are other widows who had kids Sophie’s age, I made sure that she met them,” she says.
Sophie’s experience of connecting with other teens was so helpful that now, at age 20, she reaches out to people in their community when she hears about similar losses to let them know, “I’ve been there if you need someone to talk to.”
When Gould’s husband died, a friend gave her and her and Sophie two copies of the book, Healing After Loss: Daily Meditations For Working Through Grief by Martha Whitmore Hickman. Mother and daughter would read a passage from the book every night as a way to cope and keep Joel’s memory alive.
Reading the book every night became a ritual. “I thought it was important for Sophie because I wanted her to remember her dad,” Gould says. “It was hard, but it was meaningful time we spent together.”
Gould also made sure that Sophie received therapy.
“I’m very pro-therapy and I’m an advocate of self-help and self-examination,” she explains. “I wanted Sophie to be able to sort out her feelings because I was a mess. I was crying every day, and she was very stoic and kept a lot in.”
Bidwell Smith also suggests counseling for the parent of the teen. “The number one thing that parents have to remember to do is to support themselves while they are supporting their teen.
Having a therapist to monitor how your teen is doing is important because the grief process can be overwhelming. “Some of the things a teen might say or ask are hard conversations,” Bidwell Smith says.
She also stresses the importance of providing a space for your teen to grieve. “They are not going to grieve in the times you think they will or in the ways that you think they will,” she says, “but when the questions do pop up you should be ready.”
It’s important to remember that it’s okay for parents not to have all the answers. “Instead of shutting down the conversation because you don’t know the answer just say you don’t know,” Bidwell Smith recommends. “And ask, ‘What do you think?’ to keep the conversation open.”
Gould’s advice to parents and teens is to not judge yourself. “There is no right or wrong way to grieve,” she says. “The feeling of grief can be so overwhelming and confusing, and nothing makes sense. Be kind to yourself.”