Losing loved ones is never easy, and our current situation makes grieving even more complicated. Jennifer Stern, LISW, reminds us that “there are no ‘shoulds’ when it comes to grief” and offers practical advice for how parents can meet teens where they are and support grieving teens as they work through their emotions.
Q: As parents of teens, how do we support them when someone they love dies?
Stern: The most important thing to do is to provide space for them to grieve. People grieve and are comforted differently, so it helps to normalize the grief experience and practicing reflective listening. This means to replace “You must be so _____” statements with ones like “Tell me how you’re feeling,” “Let me know if there’s anything I can do for/with you,” “What would be supportive/comforting?” and “What do you need me to know?”
If you’re practicing reflective listening and your teen isn’t responding, they are showing you that they need time and space to process their emotions. You can’t force teens to disclose their emotions, but you can slide a note under their door or text them to give them love and support. Feel free to have authentic and transparent conversations, showing them that you respect their need for privacy, but that you worry about them and want to be sure that they are okay. Suggest doing an activity together that you both enjoy doing normally to spend time and connect with them. These are all ways to support a grieving teen.
Q: What can we do to ease the process when loved ones die?
Stern: Ritual and tradition are particularly important, especially with teens, so sharing pictures and memories – even virtually – can still be powerful. Engage them in the process of positive remembrance and let them lead the way and contribute to the traditions.
If the death was sudden, there is a disorienting shock, because there was no time to prepare. The suddenness of death can make it so hard to believe, especially if you cannot go to the typical places to say goodbye. Conversation is very important. Ask questions: “What would you like to have said?”; “Is there a note you want them to be buried with?”; “Do you want to share a memory with family/friends?”; “Are there questions we as parents/the funeral home could answer for you?”; “What do you need to know to process their sudden death?”
Q: How do we offer support as a grieving parent?
Stern: As a grieving parent, there is duality: You’re grieving both because you’re in pain and because your kids are grieving. Be honest with them, talk to them about your emotions. It will normalize and validate that sadness is okay for everyone in the family to feel. Everyone’s relationship with the person was different, so everyone’s grief will be different as well.
Q: How do we help our kids when there is a moment of normalcy after the death but they feel bad about it?
Stern: It’s important to recognize duality. You can feel deep pain but still feel excitement and joy about something or about seeing someone. It’s a part of life to have bittersweet moments, and it’s very much a part of the grieving process. We can support our grieving teens by helping them understand this.
There are no “shoulds” in grief; it’s about honoring yourself and knowing that the person who died loved you and wished for you to be happy and healthy and take care of yourself. Sitting in a room by yourself and crying is okay when you need it, but it is not how you have to grieve and act all the time.
Q: What should the parent who is grieving their parent and supporting their child at the same understand?
Stern: Be authentic and transparent. Don’t be afraid to ask for what you need, because when you do, you show it’s okay to be alone. Find ways to remember positively or distract yourself in positive ways. Sometimes there are no words. You just have to be present – not saying anything is sometimes the best way to connect in grief.