Viewers of the NBC show This Is Us have known that the Pearson triplets lost their father, Jack, when they were teens. The episode following the Super Bowl revealed how Jack died and also showed us the first glimpses of the raw grief of teens who have just lost a parent.
The fictional Pearson kids aren’t the only ones facing grief. I can’t help but think of the kids in our neighborhood who lost their dad a week ago after he suffered a heart attack. I asked Julianne Neely of Individual and Family Connection, a pediatric therapy practice in Chicago, for advice on how to help teens dealing with loss and grief.
Every loss is unique and the grieving process looks differently for everyone, especially adolescents. A variety of factors can impact how the loss of a special person may impact your tween or teenager, such as how close they were to the person they lost and if the death was sudden or traumatic.
Developmentally, teens tend to view themselves as invincible. That means that suffering a loss during this developmental period can be especially shocking and upsetting to them.
Regardless of the circumstances surrounding the loss, your teen needs your support. If you are trying to help teens dealing with grief and loss, meet them where they are emotionally. If they need to cry, sit with them in that. Laugh with them if they want to laugh. If they need to be angry, let them know it’s okay to be mad right now.
Keep in mind that where they are can change quickly, remain attuned to their emotional needs so that you can be there for them emotionally.
Nothing shuts a teen or tween down faster than unsolicited advice, so unfortunately it is time to keep your well earned wisdom to yourself.
The most important thing you can do right now is listen without judgement, hold them quietly, and be ready to listen some more.
In between quiet moments, listen reflectively by validating what you hear them saying with lots of empathy, “I know, this is so unfair, he was so special”.
Keep lines of communication open. Talk about the loss as a family, especially if the loss impacts the family as a whole. Share favorite memories of the special person with one another, and look at pictures together.
Invite your teen to do something special to say goodbye to their special person. They may choose to write a letter, paint, draw, create a video of memories, or they may not be ready to do anything yet.
It is important that your teen find positive ways to express their emotions. If your teen is turning to alcohol, drugs, risky behavior, excessive sleeping, or other negative coping tools, seek professional help.
This is the time to really nurture them.
Offer to run a warm bath for them, cook their favorite meal, lotion their hands or feet, brush and braid their hair, paint their nails. Of course, hold them when they are ready.
Even after the initial mourning period, ask your adolescent how they are doing following the loss. Big life events such as graduations and weddings may become especially hard reminders of the loss for your teen. Help them sort through many of the complicated feelings that may surrounded happy events after a loss.
Many of my clients share that they are touched when others ask about their lost loved one, even well after the event. They are often thinking of it and are thankful to know that their loved one is not forgotten by others.
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