Teenagers are moving between childhood and adulthood and dealing with all the changes that this brings. It can be a period of fun and excitement but also confusion, anxiety and difficulty. Bereavement at this time can compound and exasperate existing negative emotions or coping styles.
It can be difficult for teenagers and their parents to separate out teenage behaviour from grief reactions. Even though teenagers may look grown up, they are still developing their emotional maturity and will need consistent support as they grieve.
Teenagers usually have a very good understanding of death, and unlike children, they know that it can happen to anyone and at any time. Parents cannot protect the teenagers in their lives from the pain of loss. They can experience death within their own family, in school or in the wider community.
The experience of death will vary for the teenager depending on many factors, such as their relationship with the person, the type of death, their personality, gender, age and the responses of other family members or friends.
For teenagers who have had no experience of death, this can be the first time they experience the overwhelming emotions related with grief. This can be scary, and many don’t know how to cope with it. As a parent, try to normalise their feelings. Explain that a huge range of emotions is to be expected at this time, and help them figure out what coping strategies would be helpful for them.
It also may be the first time they attend a funeral, and they may be unsure and nervous of what to expect. They may worry about others watching them and judging their uncertainty around what to do or their ability to cope. Talk your teenager through what to expect in the days following a death. If possible include them in the planning and allow them to choose what to be a part of.
Remember that bereavement can prompt teenagers to challenge their own world view, religious views or sense of immortality for the first time. Philosophical questions around the meaning of life might surface. Encourage your teen to talk openly about this. Don’t minimize their questions, and help them find their own answers. Allow them to hear your own point of view without it having to be theirs.
As a parent, you may also be grieving, and this could be the first time a teenager experiences the adults in charge really struggling. It is okay to grieve and show emotion in front of a teenager, as this demonstrates for them that it is okay to express the emotions they are feeling. However, if your emotions are overwhelming you, it could cause anxiety for the teenager and put them in the position of having to support you. If this is happening look at other ways you can find support for yourself.
Teenagers can be very protective of their family. They can worry about showing their emotion in case it makes someone else upset. Reassure them that even though you may be upset you can cope and you want to know how they are feeling also. If they preferred they could speak to a friend, or another adult they trust or a counsellor.
Teenagers who have experienced the death of a sibling may feel they are being overlooked. It is important for parents to talk about and remember their deceased children while at the same time making sure their other children get attention for things not related to the bereavement.
It is common for teenagers to want to fit in and go unnoticed. Therefore grieving may make them stand out in a way they are not comfortable with. For this reason, they may be guarded about how and when they express their emotions. If they are acting like nothing’s wrong, it doesn’t mean they don’t care. As parents, it is important to allow the teenager to express their emotions in the way they want.
It is common when someone dies for adults not to talk about the death, assuming that the teenager will be spared some of the pain. However, the reality is that teenagers will grieve anyway. You can support them by talking openly, listening, allowing them to grieve how they want, and allowing them to decide how they will cope while keeping an eye out for self-destructive behaviours.
Within a family and community, each person will grieve differently at different times. One may be talkative, another may cry a lot, another might be angry and another might withdraw. This can lead to tension if it is misunderstood. The experience of grief can change from moment to moment. Ultimately, each person’s reactions to a death should be respected as his or her way of coping in that moment.
Some helpful websites:
www.anamcara.ie (Anam Cara hold a bereaved parent support meeting on the third Thursday of each month at 7.30pm in Castlebar)
Article printed in The Mayo News on 02 February 2016