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Parents, Teenagers, and Loss: How To Help A Grieving Teen

When families experience the death of a parent, it brings emotional pain and grief to the teenager and the surviving parent. A parent who is hurting may not know how to help a grieving teen. Though the loss is great, families can take steps to help teens and parents cope during this challenging time.

A parent’s death interrupts the normal life of the teenager. Regardless of whether the death is sudden or anticipated, the teen’s initial response is usually shock. Even when a teenager has some preparation for the impending loss, a parent’s death may not seem real. Roles and responsibilities shift in families when a parent dies. Teen often talk about the need to “grow up fast,” which is difficult to avoid. Parents can keep the lines of communication open in order to balance the needs of everyone.

Grieving Teenagers

Feelings of anger are a common response to a parent’s death. Teens benefit from being allowed to express their anger in ways that do not harm themselves or anyone else. Saying, “You shouldn’t feel that way,” denies the teen his reality. Of course he is angry, and the parent is likely to feel that way too. It is helpful to recognize this emotion, and others that arise, for what they are: a normal reaction to something that feels very sad and unfair. Teenagers cognitively perceive the reality of death, including its universality, inevitability and irreversibility. What they need is help understanding, accepting and expressing their emotions.

The teen years, as we know, are fraught with conflict. Though conflict is normal, it can complicate grief because teens may feel some responsibility for the death and may carry a residual guilt. The loss also brings mortality to the forefront. For teens who have lost a parent to illness,  there can be an increased awareness of health, disease and dying. This can create anxiety in the teen, not only about the teen’s eventual death but also about the surviving parent’s lifespan. The anguish teenagers experience in losing a parent is understandable. But all of these emotions—guilt, vulnerability, fear and sadness—coupled with the normal search for independence, attest to a teen’s need for guidance and protection from the surviving parent.

Teens and Loss

The surviving parent should recognize the need to demonstrate to his/her children that receiving support is an essential part of healing. Coping can be something that is difficult to do alone. While not every parent will seek a support group or counseling, parents will benefit from showing their children that they are willing to work through the reality of their grief.

Teens typically spend a good deal of energy trying to define and embody “normal.” Teens who have lost a parent are suddenly different from their peers. They often feel uncomfortable returning to school, feeling like they are being treated differently. Parents can help by asking their teens how they would like the school to be informed. This empowers teens, giving them a chance to regain some control. Support groups for teens who have experienced a death are also helpful. Being with others who are going through the same kind of thing helps them feel less alone.

How To Help A Grieving Teen

The after-effects of grief continue long into the young person’s life. At each important stage of life, the loss is revisited. A teenager who was especially close to his father may say he will never forget his father, who, in his heart, will always be his best friend. Although it can hurt, talking and reminiscing about the parent who died helps teens incorporate the parent into their life. Other ways to bring healing include telling stories, wearing jewelry or clothing that belonged to the parent. Other ideas might be having and using some of their possessions, visiting the grave site. Some teens may prefer writing letters or drawing pictures. Others might find healing making a memory book or box to capture stories, photos, and other mementos.

A teen should recognize that he or she is forever changed by the loss. Some teens say they learn through the death of a parent  always to hope for the best even as they have been through the worst. Good and growth can come from sadness and loss. The experience of losing a parent can actually bring the family closer as they acknowledge the loss, but continue on with their lives. There is room for hope when a family can accept and express grief openly on the ever-evolving path of healing.

Kathy Maxwell, LISW-S

Kathy Maxwell, former clinical program staff member at The Gathering Place, a cancer support center in Beachwood and Westlake, Ohio. Maxwell maintains a private practice in Solon, Ohio.