Teenager’s, as we all know, think they are invincible. Most of them also have a hard time making sense of events and situations that require a perspective greater than “what am I doing this weekend.” This makes supporting a friend who has suffered a death in the family particularly difficult (“What do I say — and what do I NOT say?” “How can I help?” “What happens now?”) Kids can use real guidance in what to do when this happens as there are no longer any common cultural rituals for grieving. Here are a few things to let your adolescent know about what they can do when their friend is grieving a loss.
Sympathy. Kids who suffer a loss hate when people use cliché phrases: “You’ll be fine” “I know how you feel” “God never gives you more than you can handle” “They’re in a better place now” “At least . . .” ( just about anything added to this phrase turns out wrong). Teens are hypersensitive to insincerity. You can help your kid know that simple is better. It doesn’t take much more than “I’m so sorry” and hugs or a hand on the shoulder.
Emotions. Expressing grief in front of a friend is a sign of profound trust but it can scare teenagers if they don’t know what to expect. Your teenager’s instinct (especially boys) will be to help their friend avoid being upset. Help your kid understand that it is natural and important for their friend to feel strong emotions at times like these. The big ones are deep sadness, deep anger, along with fear and uncertainty. Talk to your kid about emotions that are normal while grieving so they know what to expect. Your kid can help their grieving friend a lot by not getting freaked out when they show these emotions.
Talking. Talking about a recently deceased loved one is often a relief to the grieving person. Your kid needs to know it is OK to mention the loved one’s name and share memories with their friend as they surface (“I was just remembering that time when your mom . . .”). This keeps death from being an awkward “white elephant in the room.” Let your kid know they don’t have to wait until their friend brings up the deceased.
Hanging out. Grief is a lonely business. Even when a kid is sad and doesn’t feel like doing anything, the presence of friends can help. Having close friends around brings normality into the situation (e.g., bringing your homework and working on it while y’all hang out), it helps keep them from feeling so out of control and alien and it helps them remember they aren’t alone. Let your kid know he or she may have to take the initiative to hang out and that it is often appreciated and a comfort.
Alone time. At the same time, kids can really get tired of being “on stage” when they are grieving. Make sure your kid knows that while hanging around is helpful, their friend will also need some alone time. During those first couple of months, it is hard for kids to not take it personally if their grieving friend doesn’t reach out like they used to. Your kid will probably need help figuring out how to both give their friend the space they may need while also staying connected.
Listening. A kid who has lost someone close often wants to talk; just talk and be heard by someone who matters. Teens often don’t realize there is no answer to some questions (since they think they know EVERYTHING), especially in the face of something as profound as death. “I don’t know.” “I wonder that too.” “That sucks.” “That’s messed up;” these are responses your kid can use to show they are listening. Your kid needs to know they don’t have to have answers. (It’s also a bad idea for them to try to be a therapist. It’s harder than it looks.)
Silence. Silence can be devastating to teens. Normally, it sends the implicit message that a kid is a boring loser, disliked, lame, or stupid. However, silence is an important part of grief. Let your teen know it’s ok to let silence happen. On the other hand, two hours straight of staring at each other without speaking is a bit awkward. If silence goes on more than 15 minutes, a VERY long time to a kid, your kid could suggest doing something that doesn’t require talking but isn’t just staring at the wall. Things like taking a walk, watching a movie, playing video games, or just listening to music can help.
Distraction. Your kid is in the perfect position to come up with distractions to help their friend not be consumed by grief. Distractions are an important strategy to give grieving people a break from all that heavy emotion. Grief can make you forget about (or not have the energy for) doing normal, everyday things. It can also interfere with even coming up with things to do. Your kid can help bring some energy and activity to their grieving friend. Just remind them not to push too hard.
When should your kid be concerned. While people grieve in their own way, it is worth talking to your kid about signs that their friend may be in emotional trouble. Experiencing a significant loss changes how you see the world, the future, and eternity. However, it’s one thing to wonder about what happens after death, it is totally different from WANTING to die. Talking about wanting to die or that life is not worth living is a sign adults need to get involved. Adults also need to be involved if their friend begins doing risky things that are out of character or could lead to serious injury (e.g., potentially lethal risk taking, drunk driving, using dangerous amounts of alcohol or drugs, etc.). Even though this violates the unwritten rule of not being a “narc,” that kind of loyalty can be deadly. Together you and your kid can figure out a sensitive but insistent way to get their friend the help they may need to make it through this tough time.
(Previous version appeared as a column in the Brentwood Home Page)