Adolescence is a confusing time at best. Young people are still learning from parents who are helping to shape their fragile and emerging self-identities. How do they cope then, when one of those adults is taken from them? What can we who are left, do to help? Well, the worst that we can do is to tell them that they “have to take care of the family now”, “be the man of the house”, or “be strong for your Mother/Father/brothers and sisters”. They may not be able to support themselves, let alone anyone else and they need to grieve as much as anyone else.
Physical development does not always equal emotional maturity and as adults we don’t always cope with the loss of a loved one very well and teenagers are no different. Often a loss in teenage years is sudden and unexpected, for example, a heart attack, a car accident or suicide. This can plunge them into a heightened and often prolonged sense of unreality. They need permission and time to grieve and mourn the loss. This is often a time for them to learn about the pain that comes with caring deeply about others. They may be giving out lots of signs that they are struggling with what can be quite complex feelings yet they often feel pressurised to act as if they are doing better than they really are. They may be actively discouraged from sharing grief by their peers who have not experienced such a loss and whilst meaning well, may often trot out banalities that they have heard somewhere which they think will help but actually do not.
So, what can we do? We need to understand that grief is the natural and normal response to loss and everybody’s grief is unique to themselves. We should not try to spare them any of the pain and sadness, they need to feel that it’s okay to be sad and to feel a multitude of emotions. They also need to understand that the pain will not last forever. In the meantime we should help them to feel safe and to nurture space and opportunities for them to talk about their feelings and to review and complete the lost relationship, particularly if there was any conflict around it. Don’t leave them isolated or let them isolate themselves, be open to just being there as a comforting presence. Teenage life is under construction and reconstruction anyway and this loss event is another change that they will need to take into their web of life. They will also be dealing with the normal psychological, physiological and academic pressures that are inherent with teenage years. Show them that they are heard and supported not just in the immediate aftermath of the loss but in the weeks and months afterwards when they may still be grieving and in need of a heartfelt ear. If they need some further professional help, then support them to take it. This is a courageous step which shows their strength and not one to feel weak and ashamed about needing.
If you have been affected by such a loss or know anyone who has and would like further information then please contact me.