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Dealing with the Death of a Parent: How To Help With Grief

Dealing with the death of a parent is hard for teens. The surviving parent, family, and friends want to help, but don’t know how to begin the conversation. What can you do and say to comfort a grieving teen?

What to Say to a grieving family with a teen

Actions speak louder than words. This is never truer than when you reach out to a grieving family. Last night in our support group, one teen smiled as she explained how three of her father’s friends had fought at his funeral about who would get to plow the family’s driveway. She said they finally decided to share the responsibility. Notice that they didn’t come up at the funeral and say, “If there is anything I can do to help, give me a call.” All of the teens agreed that these words were not helpful and did not mean much.

What to Do

The death of a parent in a household leaves a lot of gaps. Perhaps there is no longer anyone to drive a teen to practice, help him with algebra, or cheer her on at her volleyball game. Who will mow the grass or help the teen get ready for prom? As a caring adult, you can impact the life of a child by a few acts of kindness.

If you are not sure what the teen or the family needs, then make a few suggestions, but let them know that you are open to ideas. Even if there is another type of loss, the parents may be so incapacitated by their grief that they are unable to support their teen. They may not have the energy or ability to do everyday things. After losing a child, some parents can’t even get out of bed. Think of the burden that puts on a teen.

Remember that whatever you do, be genuine. Don’t say, “I know how you feel,” don’t give false promises, and don’t approach them in pity. They will appreciate sincerity, even if they don’t show it.

How to Show Support

Over the years I have received many calls from concerned parents about their grieving teens. They say things like, “He doesn’t cry,” or “Her grades have gone down,” or “He’s so angry.” Negative behaviors, signs of depression, or problems with school and sleep are common reactions amongst teens. The challenge is that although teens may look like adults, they are still developing their coping skills. Emotionally they react more like children than adults.  When death occurs, such as the loss of a mother, teens often find themselves feeling more like a child, but try to make others think they have everything under control.

Grieving teens need support at home and at school. It is typical for grades to go down for a semester and sometimes the first year. Even if teens are resistant to informing their teachers about their loss it is best to work with the school counselor or principal to inform the teachers. Your teenager’s grief will most likely affect school work, grades and getting assignments completed on time. Teachers are often willing to work with students to extend deadlines or give extra help when needed. It is a good idea for parents to check in with their teens before grades take a drastic turn.

Getting Help

Educating teens about grief is also important.  There are great books such as Help for the Hard Times by Earl Hipp that explains what is normal for a grieving teen. This helps decrease their anxiety that there is something “wrong” with them. Sometimes grief groups are available at schools or through area grief centers or hospices. Individual counseling is also an option.

If teens are resistant to grief counseling, encourage them to give it a try two or three times first. You may have to bribe them a little, but most often once they try it, they discover it is helpful and want to stay. If not, they may not be ready. Everyone has a different time table for their grief. Often teens postpone some of their grieving until they are more mature or have a more emotionally stable environment. Encourage them to find some way to let their feelings out. Writing poetry, journaling, art and music are all healthy ways to express their grief.

Laura Serazin, MA, ATR, CTC

Laura Serazin is Children’s Program Coordinator, Cornerstone of Hope Bereavement Center, Cleveland, OH.