This past week a friend experienced the unspeakable pain of losing a child. If there are words, then I am not wise enough to find them.
I did want to share something that has been rolling around in my mind and heart.
As our children and church youth also grieve this loss, it seems ironic that I just studied grief and teens a few months ago in a counseling program. Of course, I don’t actually believe in irony so I’ll call it God’s provision. People use to ask me what I planned to do with my degree and I would always tell them use it on my children. Unfortunately, that joke doesn’t seem so funny anymore.
I am certainly no expert, and I am just navigating these new waters with the rest of you.
Yet, there are some things I have to share about the teen that is grieving.
1. There are stages of grief, and it helps to know them.
Denial, bargaining, anger, grief, and acceptance. Know them…. and make sure your teen does, too. It is normal to pass through each of these stages as you make your way through the grief process. Don’t expect to spend a week at each stage and then check it off the list. Grieving takes time (a long time) and we don’t experience the stages in a neat, tidy order. We may even waffle back and forth between two. Yet, knowing what the stages are helps kids to understand that what is happening to them is normal. It also takes away the bewildering feelings like, “I am so angry! Why am I struggling even more today than I did initially? What is wrong with me?” After I first studied the stages of grief it was amazing to watch how real they really are when you are caring for someone going through them.
A wise friend once described grief like the waves of an ocean. It gets better, but then it may wash over you again unexpectedly. We can help them understand this is normal – and remind them that those waves WILL recede again.
2. They may be surprised at the power of their emotions (or how fast they change).
Teenagers are more emotional than adults under normal circumstances (as if you didn’t know that)! I am not picking on them when I say that. There are actually physical changes (like synaptic pruning) happening in their brains that make it so. (I’d love to go on about the neuroscience behind it, but I have tried talking to Brian at length about it enough to know your eyes would glaze over and you would pretend to snore because apparently -ehem- I’m just a geek). Pretend you didn’t already know that about me.
My point is no matter how emotional you thought your teen was before, grief causes very intense emotions – that may surprise you both. It’s like teen emotions on steroids. This is where it gets tricky – because sometimes that anger really does need to be met with a hug. (Well, maybe teen anger often needs to be met with a hug – but that’s for another day). That sounds obvious now, but weeks or months down the road we sometimes need the reminder. Where grief is concerned, compassion is the rule.
3. They don’t know how to grieve.
You already knew that. Here is something else you already knew: teens are about as good at waiting as infants are at playing Scrabble. They are so convinced they can’t that we start to wonder if they are right. They don’t call them the “microwave generation” for nothing. Unfortunately, grief is a sloooow process. You can go down a checklist of helpful things (like journaling, writing a letter to the person you lost, spending time with friends, reading your Bible, listening to uplifting music) but as helpful as they are they won’t speed up the process. No one gets a fast pass for grief.
4. They need to be reminded that it is okay to be happy or enjoy life.
They (read: we) sometimes have this natural inclination to feel guilty when we catch ourselves laughing or enjoying a moment. They need to be reminded that moving on doesn’t mean forgetting. We don’t dishonor our friend or forget them when we go on living. Being with friends, especially others that are grieving the same loss, is much healthier than isolating yourself. Remembering and loving our lost loved one can mutually exist with joy. We don’t have to let go of one to have the other.
5. They need to see you practice self care.
If your teen is grieving, you are most likely grieving deeply, too. Remember how I said that they don’t know how to grieve? Yeah, well let me heap some more responsibility on your tired, weary shoulders ….. you are their model for how to grieve well. Let them see you take care of yourself. Let them see you eat. And rest. And maintain friendships. And laugh. I’m not saying hide your pain. Tears are healthy too.
Yet, we can tell them that we have to trust and know that God is good and still in control. We can tell them it is okay to keep on living and thriving….. but I am finding that in parenting we almost always have to model it ourselves first. Don’t we?
One other thing….
I mentioned that grief can take a long time. That is normal. However, there is definitely a time to reach out for outside help from a pastor or counselor. Certain signs may mean your child needs help processing their grief.
- Feelings of hopeless
- Prolonged loss of interest in things they use to enjoy
- Prolonged trouble sleeping (after the intial few days)
- Extreme avoidance of anything that reminds them of their friend and/or loss
- Extreme anger or fearfulness
When in doubt, reach out.
These are just some immediate thoughts from a tired Mama-brain. I don’t have all the answers, and the best thing I could tell you (or myself) is that it is okay not to have them all. There is certainly a wealth of good information out there. I hope that this at least gives you a jumping-off point if you are wondering how to help your child process things you’d rather they never had to process.
“The Lord is close to the brokenhearted and saves those who are crushed in Spirit.” – Psalm 34:18