Facing the death of a friend or loved one is a difficult thing for anyone. For a teenager, grief can seem insurmountable. Moreso, when death is unexpected, like the death of a friend or significant other, it is often even worse. No parent wants to see their child go through something so painful, but there are ways that you can help.
1. Reinforce that their feelings are valid.
Everyone deals with grief differently. This is no different for your teen. Their emotions will be a spectrum of pain, anger, depression, rage, sorrow, and numbness. No matter what they are feeling, you must reinforce that they are not foolish or wrong or overreacting for feeling that way. They need room to express these feelings so that they can begin to heal. Telling them that their feelings are wrong teaches them not to trust their feelings and can lead to emotional issues.
2. Be there when they want to talk but give them space when they need it.
Most parents find it difficult to leave their children alone when they are hurting, even when they are normal. Knowing that your child is facing the pain of a loved one by themselves is worse. However, sometimes they will need the space to sit with their feelings. By giving them this space, you are allowing them time to process their emotions and to begin to make sense of the situation. When they are ready to talk, you’ll be there to listen.
3. You don’t have to have all the answers.
Your teenager might have difficult questions. Why did this happen? Could they have done anything to prevent it? How can the world be so unfair? You don’t have to have an answer for them. Be honest, be sincere, and don’t be afraid to admit that you don’t know. It’s more important that you are empathetic, kind, and supportive. Life is sometimes complicated and unfair, and there aren’t always answers that feel good enough.
4. Context matters.
You should consider the circumstances of death when you are planning how to best support your child. The number one leading cause of death among teenagers is car accidents. You should reinforce that it was an accident, and no one deserved to get hurt but also drive home the importance of safe driving. Death from an illness is often very frightening because it can seem to strike randomly. Your teenager may need the reassurance that they and those around them are healthy. Probably the most difficult cause of death to deal with his suicide. Most people cannot understand why someone would commit suicide. In this case, it is important to seek out the assistance of mental health professionals.
5. Reach out to their school and activities.
The death of a teenager has a huge impact on the entire community. Your child’s school is probably taking steps to help the students with the grieving process. Usually, schools call in grief counselors, have assemblies, and encourage teachers to talk to their students about their feelings. Your child will need more support because their relationship was so important, but you should know what resources are available.
6. The five stages of grief theory is wrong.
Most of us have heard about the Five Stages of Grief: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. What few people know is that the Kubler-Ross model was developed to describe the process that terminally ill patients go through when they are faced with their deaths. Grieving the loss of another person is not a straight path of predictable emotions. Grief is messy and complicated and looks more like a squiggle line drawn by a toddler than a straight line. Even months or years after the loss, grief can strike and leave a person sad or angry without warning. Recovery is a long process, and it is unique for each person.
7. Make professional help available.
Seeking out professional help is not a failure on your part. A therapist used to work with adolescents is better equipped to help your teenager understand their feelings. They have the tools to teach your teen healthy coping mechanisms. It may also be easier for them to talk to a therapist about their feelings, which is perfectly normal. It may not be a bad idea for you to find a therapist to talk to yourself. This is also a traumatic experience for you. Make the offer of seeing a therapist, but don’t force your teenager to go if they don’t want to. If you suspect that your teenager may be in danger of harming themselves, however, seek out professional help immediately.