The day after the crash, my mother called me at the shoe store where I worked. “There’s been a car accident. Laurie’s dead,” she told me. I said “Oh my God” a few times…and went back to work. I had no idea how to feel.
When teens lose someone — a friend, parent, favourite uncle or teacher, even someone they know only marginally — they feel the loss in unexpected ways. Particularly if this is your teen’s first experience with death, grief often feels like a voyage without a map, dredging up new thoughts about mortality. And even though you might be tempted to step back, thinking older kids are handling the loss well because they seem fine, parents need to be more available than ever.
Parents can play a huge role in helping their children through grief, says Kay Johnson, former director of Vancouver-based Griefworks BC (griefworksbc.com). “Generally, teens are struggling between independence and interdependence,” she says. “There’s a push-pull for kids who don’t want to be seen as weak, but inside might be feeling like mush.”
Even if you think your older child is trying to keep a stiff upper lip those first few months, she might in fact just be numb, says Dawn Cruchet, a certified grief educator and counsellor in Montreal. This phase can go on for months, or even years — “especially if the death has been unexpected. This can be too much for a child to deal with all at once, and it is a form of protection.”
That’s what happened to Cathy Lountzis, a 24-year-old psychology student from Montreal who lost her dad to heart disease when she was 15. “I felt the pain from the moment I learned about my dad’s death,” says Lountzis. “But the intensity of the emotions, especially the negative ones, was more present after two years.”
Still, especially in the months right after the loss, parents need to be sure they’re not being too pushy, says Matthew James, a 17-year-old from Aurora, Ont., who, in March, lost the grandmother who helped raise him. “I wish people had given me a bit more space to deal with it. I wanted to have more time to sit and think about, “What can I do for other people? How can I make this better for myself?” He adds his mother’s own grief made it hard to carve out time for himself.
Lountzis says she remembers being unintentionally ostracized by kids who didn’t understand her loss and by teachers who didn’t seem to know how to handle a grieving student. Only two months after her dad’s death, the school called her mother. “They saw my lack of concentration and said, “She should be over it by now.”
Instead of being preoccupied with timelines, says Cruchet, parents need to remind school administrators to be more accommodating to grieving students by extending deadlines or offering an open-door policy to a trusted teacher.
Kids have always turned to their friends for support when another student dies. Facebook and other social networking sites give teens a new forum to work through shock and grief together. “It is a way to memorialize and that is a very important stage of adolescent development,” says Johnson.
Even if your teen seems to have supportive friends, parents should look for warning signs that their child’s grieving is crossing over into the danger zone, including declining grades, loss of interest in activities or becoming obsessed with staying busy. Johnson says teens in trouble may also exhibit risky behaviour such as drug and alcohol use or shoplifting. “It’s to test their mortality,” she says. “It’s a way to feel something instead of sadness.”
Lountzis didn’t have a Facebook community to turn to, but she did have her mom, who she says did everything right at the time — making sure her kids had grief counselling and, without pushing too hard, asking how they were feeling and creating ways to remember their father. “It was thanks to her I was able to cope with this in a healthy way,” says Lountzis.
Kira Vermond is a Guelph, Ont.-based freelance writer and mom of two who still often thinks about her friend.