In the wake of what seems to be an epidemic of teenage deaths from car accidents, many parents are feeling overwhelmed by the sense of grief their teens are experiencing. In some cases, adolescents may be greatly impacted by deaths of peers even if they were casual acquaintances. A climate of sorrow can take hold of a school and affect many who were not even in the circle of friends of the deceased students.
After a death a teen may experience a sense of unreality. They may find comfort from peers who have experienced the same loss but other friends may ignore the subject because they don’t know what to say. Dr. Alan Wolfelt says that parents need to be on the watch for symptoms of depression, symptoms of restlessness and sleeping problems, deterioration of family and peer relationships, drug and alcohol abuse and sexual experimentation, and denying pain by acting overly strong or mature.
Do not ignore your teen’s feelings or think that these feelings will just go away. Talk to your child, and let him know that it is acceptable to be sad. Help him understand that the pain won’t last forever, but that it may take a long time to go away and will not be forgotten. If necessary, find a support group through the school counselor, church, or private therapists. Contrary to what many people believe, grief does not proceed through a series of ordered stages. Emotions of sadness, anger, disbelief, numbness and acceptance all occur, but not necessarily in any set order. The grieving person’s emotions may go back and forth between stages. Also be aware that there is no normal or correct way to grieve. Some people feel better going about business as usual since this can be a distraction. Some may need solitude and time to think. Feelings of survivor guilt are normal, as well as second guessing. (Such as, “I should have stopped him from getting in the car.”). Let your teen know that he is not responsible and cannot control anyone else’s behavior but his own.
In addition to emotions mentioned above, other typical grief responses are loss of appetite, difficulty concentrating, feelings of unreality, unexpected crying, wandering around the house aimlessly and not finishing tasks they have started, preoccupation with the life of the deceased, disturbing dreams, sensing the presence of the deceased, and anger at the loved one for leaving them. The grieving person may feel like they can’t talk about the loss because it will make others uncomfortable, or they may repeat things about the deceased and how they died over and over again.
As a parent, we want to be able to take away our child’s pain. When a teen has experienced a death of a friend or loved one, the best thing a parent can do is listen and accept their feelings. Keep reminding yourself and your child that they will not always feel this badly. The organization Hospice Caring, Inc. can be a good source of support. For teens who like to read, there are many good books, both fiction and nonfiction, that deal with the subject of death of a friend. Some of the titles are:
Say Goodnight, Gracie by Julie Deaver; When a Friend Dies, by Marilyn Gootman; Straight Talk about Death for Teenagers by Earl Grollman; The Grieving Teen by Helen Fitzgerald; I Will Remember You by Laura Dower; Teenagers Face to Face with Bereavement by K Gravelle and C. Haskins and I Wasn’t Ready to Say Goodbye, by Brook Noel.