The 4-year-old asked, "Will I get to see Honey again?" Her great-grandmother had recently passed away.
Her mother answered, "Some day, but it'll be a long time."
A young child seems to accept things like this so easily. But an adolescent, already burdened with all the changes that come along with adolescence, may react differently. The little one's cousin, a teen, remarked to his mother, "Grandma just lost her mother. Why isn't Grandpa comforting her? He hasn't held her hand, hasn't hugged her, nothing."
"He probably has. We just didn't see it."
Many teens might not talk about the subject with their parents. That doesn't mean they aren't thinking about death and dying, and how to cope with the loss of a beloved family member or close friend. Questions arise with them.
And though everyone grieves in their own way and time, parents need to be tuned into their adolescent children to comfort and reassure them, answer questions for them.
There are three definitions that everyone needs to understand. The first, bereavement, is "being in a state of loss." Grief is reaction to being in that state of loss. Mourning is expression is how we express grief.
According to researchers, adolescents in bereavement have to cope with several issues: predictability in our lives, master and control, belonging, fairness and justice, and self-image. All adolescents face these issues, but losing a loved one complicates their "normal" life.
In early adolescence (age 10-14) the youth believes things will go on the same, day after day, forever. But a sudden loss shakes their confidence in that belief. How can anyone be assured that the world is still a safe, sound place? They may think idealistically about the loved one who is gone. They want to be accepted by their peers. They don't understand why the person had to die.
The world is perceived as a dangerous place for middle adolescents (age 15-17). There is conflict between unrealistic expectations and helplessness. It hurts to have a connection with a loved one severed and it could happen again at any time. Could it happen to them? They are more vulnerable.
At ages 18-22, later adolescence, they reflect the thinking that nobody can predict the future, and no one is safe from harm. Loving someone is risky. They could go away, too. "A spiritual quest emerges," Dr. Balk advises in his article, "Adolescent Development and Bereavement: An Introduction" in the September 2011 issue of The Prevention Researcher.
Wendy Littner Thomson, bereavement coordinator and counselor at St. Luke's Hospice in Bethlehem, Pa., says in Dr. Carol Thomas' article, "Supporting the Grieving Adolescent: An Interview with a 21st Century Perspective," same issue, the adult needs to reassure grieving adolescents, validate their feelings, let them talk and hold the conversations in confidence. "Trust," she says, "is key." Don't ask too many questions. Don't be afraid of silence, just be there. Remember good things. Laugh and cry.
"Grief is personal, unique, unpredictable and jagged, so set aside what you may have been taught about a linear stage model of grief and grieving. It's dangerous, inaccurate and not useful because it can push people away when they really need human connection," Littner Thomson said.
When you are concerned about the depth of grief there are resources available to help you. Contact Family Recovery Center for more information about teens and grief for a lost loved one.
FRC promotes the well being of individuals, families and communities through education, prevention, and treatment programs and its networking with other area agencies.
FRC is funded, in part, by Columbiana County Mental Health and Recovery Services Board.