Teenage Grief

Helping Teenagers Navigate Grief
By Rev. Walt H. Windley, Senior Director of Spiritual Care and Grief Services, VIA Health Partners

I was 16 years old. It was supposed to be the year of driver’s license, road trips to visit potential colleges and anticipation of next steps in growing up…that in-between stage of being a kid and becoming a young adult. I was probably too arrogant for my own good, living in that phase of teenage immortality through the belief that nothing and no one could phase me or change my path. I knew enough to think I knew it all and yet not enough to know that I had a long way to go!

Death…it has that indescribable ability to simply stop you in your tracks. The world you once knew, ordered and defined by potential, fun and possibility, now sits as the cloud of mystery where nothing makes sense and the swirling of emotions is more than you can comprehend, name or even begin to describe. My dad at 42, seemingly old through my teenage eyes, was supposed to be at graduation in a few years, give me advice about budgeting in college and one day be that grandpa who would spoil my kids just because he could.  But that would not be the narrative of my life; instead, the story would unfold through a bee sting, anaphylactic shock, two weeks in a coma and ultimately saying goodbye to the one whose name I carry. This 16-year-old teenager, who was learning to becoming a man, felt abandoned, rocked, angry and afraid. I couldn’t even wrap my mind around the “why” questions, too torn up with feelings and emotions that I could not order, let alone understand.

Grief has a way of finding you, no matter how hard you might try to hide. It’s annoying, inconvenient and often settles in like the unwelcomed houseguest that just can’t catch a clue that it’s time to leave.  Though grief is a natural part of saying goodbye, leaning into mourning where what is felt inwardly is displayed outwardly, we are often taught to avoid these emotions from a societal context, believing the expression of these feelings to be either negative or displaying a sense of ultimate weakness or defeat. For a teenager, this understanding can be heightened by the lack of fully developed coping skills while one is still in the process of physical, mental and emotional growth. I knew something of death but had no idea or experience through which I could turn to cope.

But what can we do as parents, grandparents, uncles, aunts, and friends to help our teenagers grieve?

I would suggest a few points to keep in mind as you navigate these tricky waters:

  • Teenagers get the concept of change. Waking up every morning and looking in the mirror cements that fact solidly in their heads. They need to be reminded in what feels uncertain that they are not alone. Be willing to engage in conversations where you simply listen, avoiding phrases like “be strong” or “everything’s okay.” Teenagers feel an inordinate amount of stress and anxiety, especially around the death of a parent, to somehow fill that role or make sure the surviving parent or family member is “okay.” Acting out is often attention seeking behavior, testing the boundaries to see what will be allowed.
  • No two people grieve exactly alike. This principle, well studied in adult populations, also applies to our teenagers. Encourage expression of emotions through a medium that best fits your teenager. For some, that may mean verbal conversation while others may prefer to journal or take part in physical activity. The key is to remind teenagers that they still have a responsibility to self and others to do no harm. Grief is not an excuse to cause pain or hurt through chosen expression.
  • Know that your teenager may feel more comfortable opening to a stranger or friend than a family member. Our natural tendency is to want to “fix-it” and to be part of the so-called “solution.” That may mean helping your teenager find that safe person for conversation that is not you. Teenagers crave a sense of normalcy during loss. That special attention from you could be a source of additional stress, or your teenager may instinctively try to shield you from carrying their pain. Follow their lead within appropriate boundaries.

This year, VIA Health Partners will celebrate 25 years of helping students and teenagers journey with their grief through Chameleon’s Journey Grief Camp. This free offering brings together campers who have experienced a loss to learn coping skills and engage in peer support. To learn more, visit www.chameleonsjourney.org.