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When Your Kid’s Friend Dies: What to Expect The First Month

In There's a Stranger in My House by Dr James Wellborn

Confronting the death of someone you love and was an important part of your everyday life is deeply painful.  When your kid experiences the death of a friend, they have no reference point for how to deal with the loss and weave a life together without the presence of their friend.  There are several good books for teens about death and grief (and several good books that can help YOU know how to shepherd them through their grief and to gain perspective).  Many of these resources deal with the effects immediately following a death or the longer term effects of the death of a friend.  Here is some information to provide your teen about that period in between, the first 2-4 weeks following their loss.  It is written directly to your teen.

What is “normal”?
There is no right way to experience, express, and deal with grief and sadness when a friend dies.  However, there are some things that most of us go through.

  • Shock and disbelief. At first, your friend’s death will not seem “real.”  You may find yourself walking around in a daze or feeling numb.  This is an important way for humans to cope with overwhelming events.  The shock and disbelief will start to fade as time passes (though sometimes it can last for months).  When this happens, it is going to hurt like crazy.
  • Crying, screaming, quiet, aching, overwhelming sadness, difficulty concentrating.  Enough said.
  • Most people have something they regret or wish they would have done or said.  You may find yourself dwelling on what you should have done or said or didn’t get the chance to say to your friend before they died.  If you think you may be responsible in some way for your friend’s death, this can lead to you thinking it should be you who died (or wishing it had been you).  This would be one of those times to get help right away from a psychotherapist who can help you sort all this out.
  • The helplessness people feel over not being able to do anything about a friend’s death can leave them extremely angry.  This can start to leak out toward everyone and everything you do.  Right after your friend’s death, people will overlook it if you always seem mad.  When it continues (because, of course, your friend is still dead!),  people can start getting annoyed.  They may not understand how long you can stay mad about losing someone you love.
  • Redefining normality. You are not likely to see things the same way anymore.  The death of a friend changes how you see the world.  This doesn’t mean all will always be darkness and despair.  It means that you know now how deeply and powerfully pain and loss can enter your life.  It means you now know how quickly and unexpectedly you can lose someone you love.  Things will seem scarier and you will cherish others more than ever before.  You may not be able to understand why other people can be happy, laugh, or enjoy things.  You may even question whether you can afford to be close to anyone again if it means going through this again with someone else. People will notice that you have changed.  They may even try to get you to go back to your “old self.”  Your old self is still there.  There is now more depth to you and not everyone will like it.
  • You will miss your friend terribly.  It can lead to some weird stuff happening.  Some people hear their friend’s voice at odd times or see their friend in a crowd.  The depth of longing for your friend to be back in your life is part of the grieving process.
  • There are things you may begin to worry about – someone else getting hurt, that you won’t be able to go on, that you won’t ever be able to enjoy things again.  Some people even have brief panic attacks.  There are lots of fears that will surface.  These possibilities have always been there, you just didn’t notice them before.  Luckily, you will have something to say about finding your way forward and enjoying things in the future.  Just not now.
  • You may have dreams about your friend.  They can be about things from the past, futures that can never be or even nightmares.  This is one way your mind is making sense of this terrible shock.  (If the dreams really shake you up try this trick: while you are sitting there after the dream wakes you up, think up a new ending to the dream that has a better outcome-though avoid making the new ending that your friend is still alive.  This trick can help take away some of the shock.)
  • After you get over the initial hammer blow and the funeral is behind you, other people start going back to their everyday lives.  They were sad your friend died but they weren’t close enough for it to continue to be on their minds all day every day.  It will be important for you to find some people who can support you as you continue to grieve.  Lots of people won’t understand that this is how grief works when someone you are really close to dies.

What can I do to deal with it?
So what if all the pain and anguish is “normal”?  What do you do about it?  How do you get it to stop?  It won’t.  Not any time soon anyway.  It will get better, with time.  It may take a long time.  Don’t put pressure on yourself.  Don’t let other people put pressure on you.  At the same time, there are things to do that can help, even if only a little bit.

  • Appreciate that you are STRESSED OUT. This is an overwhelming experience.  When we are stressed, our mind is naturally focused on immediate issues – putting one foot in front of another, making it to the next minute.  It thinks that the body is under attack.  It is in massive fight or flight mode.  Unfortunately, this response is designed for relatively short time spans.  As it drags out, the body becomes depleted.  You will be more susceptible to illness and fatigue.  So, take multivitamins, eat well, get rest.  You may not feel like doing these things.  Do them anyway.
  • Exercise releases natural antidepressants.  Take advantage of this.  A brisk walk for 20-30 minutes is enough to do the trick.  But if you are more ambitious, then go for it.
  • Spend time around people. You will have a tendency to be tired and not want to do things.  Make sure that you keep in touch with people you care about and who care about you.  Spend time with people you enjoy.
  • Do something enjoyable. You are not likely to be in the mood for fun.  However, plan to do something every couple of days that brings you pleasure.  It won’t feel the same but it will help.
  • Keep your routines. Don’t take more than a week off.  Go to school.  Go to work.  Just know that it will take more time and attention to get things done than it did before your friend died.  That will get better as time passes.
  • Expect to have set backs. Don’t expect things to clear up in a short time.  If they do, great.  It may not work that way for you though.  It isn’t unusual for you to be feeling fine, not really thinking about how much you miss your friend and then it hits you hard, seemingly out of the blue.  Give yourself a break and cry when you need to cry.  This up and down is how it goes.
  • Pay attention if you start doing risky things. Alcohol, drugs, becoming more sexually promiscuous can all be signs that you are trying to bury the pain.  This makes things worse.  Now, in addition to your grief, you will have the fall-out from these behaviors.  If you find yourself taking more risks, be sure to talk to someone about it, your parent, your religious leader, your school counselor, a favorite teacher or even a therapist.  Don’t just ignore it.
  • Keep a journal. Write about what you are going through.  Use this as a chance to sort things out.  Make sure that you force yourself to include positive experiences or even things that you have learned for the good from your friend’s death.  (In other words, be sure to try to strike a balance between how hard things are and things that are still positive in your life.)
  • Carry something that reminds you of your friend. Have it be something that helps you feel closer to him or her.  It can help to have something to hold on to.

What do I say to my friend’s parents?
Your friend’s parents have begun a terrible journey.  There will be nothing in the moment to take away this indescribable loss.  But, there are a number of things you and your friends can do to help.

  • There are no magic words to say.  “I’m so sorry” and a real hug can say it all.  Often when your friend’s parents are hugging you, they also feel like they are getting to hug their child again.  Hug them back.  You don’t even have to say anything.
  • Cry, if you feel like it. Don’t shy away from this expression of your sorrow.  Don’t panic over the tears of your friend’s parents.  They may need to cling to you at times.  Your friendship with their child is a way to make a direct connection to the memory of their child.
  • Avoid saying pat sayings like “It’s God’s will.” However true it may be, it won’t help saying it now.  Avoid looking for the good in the situation right now.  Everyone, including you, needs to feel what they feel, however dark.
  • Don’t ask them how they are doing. The answer is obvious.  It is amazing how automatic this question is, even when you know about it.  One strategy is to think of what you would say next after asking if they are doing okay and start the conversation there.
  • Be there. Run errands, help with household chores, bring meals. Stop by.  Don’t say “call me”.  Call them and force your help on them.
  • Say your friend’s name out loud. Talking about him or her shows that you remember them.  It keeps you connected to their memory.  This is just as true around your friend’s parents.
  • Share memories. Often, there is the feeling that death will erase all evidence of someone’s life.  Keep your friend’s memory alive through talking about things you remember.  Allow yourself to laugh and recall fond, cherished times.  (If there was questionable behavior by their child, you might want to save this for remembering among you and your friends.)
  • In some unusual situations, your friend’s parents may start leaning on you for support and comfort.  They might even start putting you in the position of a surrogate child.  Grief over the loss of a child can take parents to very dark and confused places.  If you start to feel uncomfortable about how your friend’s parents are relating to you, talk to someone to get some ideas about how to be there for them while keeping important personal boundaries.

How do I know if I need some help getting through this?
You WILL need help getting through this.  Not everyone needs “professional” help (from someone who is trained to be able to help you deal with the effects of your loss).  There are a couple of things to look for in yourself that begin to suggest your friend’s death may be hitting you hard enough to need a professional to talk with.  They include things like:

  • Depression that hangs around so long that you lose interest in regular things, stuff you used to enjoy, friends, things that were important to you before
  • Sleep problems, loss of appetite, difficulty being alone (or wanting to be alone all the time)
  • Feeling angry all the time
  • Thinking about death, considering suicide, doing dangerous or reckless things without caring about the risks.
  • Using alcohol or drugs a lot (more than once a week or significant increase from what you were using before)
  • Feeling stuck, like nothing matters anymore or that you can’t seem to get yourself going.
  • Thinking that you would really like to have someone to talk to about what you are going through.

If any of these things are still constantly hanging around after a month or so, tell your parents you need to talk with a psychotherapist.  If you are thinking about killing yourself or wanting to be dead, don’t wait to see if it will go away.  Go right then to talk with a psychotherapist or counselor. 

Since we don’t talk a lot about death and grief in our culture, it is important for your kid to educate themselves about what they are going through.  Get one (or more) of the books from the list below for them to read.  Get one or more of the parents of a grieving teen books for yourself.  Hug each other a lot.  Getting through something this difficult is what families are for.  Take care of each other.

 

Suggested Books for a Grieving Teen

Straight Talk About Death for Teenagers:  How to Cope With Losing Someone You Love by Earl A. Grollman.  NY:  Beacon Press.
This book can help you face the pain that comes from the death of someone you love.  It has some helpful ways to deal with your grief.

When a Friend Dies:  A Book for Teens About Grieving and Healing by Marilyn E. Gootman, Pamela Espeland, & Deborah Prothrow-Stith.  Free Spirit Publications.
This is a small little book that is packed with helpful, compassionate information about what you will be experiencing and what you can do to make it through.

Fire In MY Heart, Ice In My Veins by Enid Samuel-Traisman
This workbook is journal like but with some prompts to have you think about what you are going through and to stay connected to the person you love who has died.  It can be really useful.

 

Suggested Books for Parents Of A Grieving Teen

The Grieving Teen: A Guide for Teenagers and Their Families by Helen Fitzgerald

Helping Children Grieve When Someone They Love Dies by Theresa M Huntley

Guiding Your Child Through Grief by Mary Ann Emswiler and James P Emswiler