As a death educator and psychology professor, I help others understand and navigate the losses associated with the final journey. Although there are ways to promote healthy grieving, nothing changes the bottom line—loss hurts.
The pandemic is a significant loss that triggered a host of secondary losses. Unfortunately, life doesn’t allow parents to shelter their kids from tragedy, such as a virus that impacts everyone and everything. The parental challenge is teaching children how to deal with loss.
All kids, even teenagers who know everything, can benefit from parental guidance during this crisis. As a single father, I have first-hand experience. For the past two years, I’ve been helping my son understand why he’s playing Wii Resort with Daddy in the teen cave instead of battling his dorm roommates in Call of Duty.
The communication guidelines for how to talk to a teenager about death and grief apply to the current situation. There are three core principles to follow when discussing the impact of Covid-19 with an adolescent.
How To Talk About Grief with Teens
1. The truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth
Loss is a part of life, and helping teenagers survive loss is a parental responsibility. Common childhood losses, such as the death of a pet, give parents invaluable teachable moments. Yet, some parents try to minimize grief with “the dog ran away” fairy tales.
The parental rationalization for bending the truth is, “I want to protect my kid from pain.” There might be truth in the justification, but parents often fib to avoid dealing with their children’s grief.
Parental avoidance of a child’s grief is understandable— there’s nothing worse than seeing your kid in emotional distress. Yet, the only one who benefits from withholding information is the parent.
Telling fake truths to a teen may side-step short-term pain, however, shielding them from harsh realities contributes to long-term issues. That’s because grief is like a cold sore—it never truly goes away. And the best way to prevent painful grief flare-ups is to address and experience a loss immediately.
Yes, being honest will cause short-term distress. However, honesty in the moment allows parents to help teenagers learn how to live and grow through their grief.
2. Avoid giving TMI
Teenagers are inquisitive creatures with no sense of fear—their hands, bodies, and minds go to places that often make parents uncomfortable. And they’re especially curious about tragedy. Significant losses, like death, divorce, and Covid-19, prompt profound questions from teens. Typically, there are three fundamental concerns: “Why?” “What about me?” and “What’s next?”
Profound questions do not demand profound answers. Parents should consider cognitive and emotional factors when responding to a teen’s concerns and make sure explanations are appropriate for their cognitive and emotional needs.
My son understands the concrete and hypothetical consequences of the pandemic, so he gets the unadulterated truth. My mother, who has Alzheimer’s, gets abbreviated responses that address her specific concerns.
Before answering an adolescent’s question, it helps to frame their concerns precisely. That means tapping the parental inner therapist and asking some variation of, “What do you think?”
Empathy fuels communication, even with moody adolescents. Statements like, “That must be frustrating” and “I’m also pissed-off,” can sometimes get mute teenagers to better express their worries. Sometimes.
3. Share your feelings
Grief is a natural response to trauma and loss. Mourning—the expression of grief—is influenced by culture and experience. Children learn how to mourn, and their primary teachers are their parents.
My father, a member of the Greatest Generation, didn’t show emotions, except when the Chicago Bears lost. He followed the classic male mantra, “Men don’t cry.” Today’s parents are considerably more transparent than previous generations, and we understand that being strong doesn’t require hiding emotions.
For the past two years, parents have experienced countless losses while riding the Covid-19 emotional rollercoaster. Perhaps the only parental upside of the pandemic, besides watching “Tiger King,” is the opportunity to teach children how to mourn. And that requires parents to model the healthy grieving mantra, “It’s okay to cry.”
The main life lesson of this pandemic is that loss is not a choice. Honesty, developmentally appropriate answers, and shared emotions are tools that parents can use to teach teenagers that, while we can’t control the tragedy, we can control how we adapt to loss.
Although magical, egocentric thinking is a hallmark of adolescence, teenagers must eventually accept the limits of personal control. We can’t script life. But we can, and do, write the narrative of how we play the cards we are dealt.
Teenagers may not admit it, but they look to their parents for answers. The pandemic is a once-in-a-lifetime catastrophe, and no one can make sense out of nonsense. Sometimes, all we can do is empathize with their teens and shout the obvious.