Adolescence is one of the most difficult and chaotic stages in life, and is widely recognized as a particularly difficult time for dealing with the death of a parent or other loved one. According to renowned developmental psychiatrist Erik Erikson, the task of adolescence is to begin to find one’s unique identity, and if this task is not accomplished, it can result in what Erikson calls “role confusion” or the “identity crisis.” Other important developmental tasks in the teen years are finding a sense of belonging and peer acceptance, withdrawing emotionally from parents and achieving emotional independence.
It is no wonder then that intense emotions of anger, guilt, confusion and isolation, and even depression can accompany teen grief. Other symptoms that are considered typical of distress before and after a parent’s death include a decline in academic performance, sleep problems and withdrawal from family discussions. Acting out behaviors and abuse of drugs or alcohol can also accompany the intense grief of the adolescent.
It is important for psychotherapists, grief counselors and parents to honor the grief of adolescents and support the entire family in the grief process as well. A family is a system, and a system is like a mobile, always working to maintain equilibrium. When an important part of that mobile is removed due to the death of a parent, the family system/mobile loses its balance, swaying wildly to find a new equilibrium. It is important that the surviving parent get professional grief support, by a grief counselor and/or in a grief support group, so that he or she can maintain open communication with grieving teens, while simultaneously experiencing the intense grief resulting from the death of a partner. Allowing the teen to witness the parent’s expression of grief can be a powerful healing tool. This “mirroring” can be a way of showing the teen that it is safe to express one’s grief, and is a sign of strength, not weakness.
As noted previously, in the transitional stage from childhood to adulthood, peers become increasingly important as the teen seeks to achieve autonomy from his or her parents. Because grief is not something that teens typically experience, the grieving teen may feel isolated and may then withdraw from interpersonal support. Compounding this difficulty is the fact that facing the reality of mortality is often avoided in the teen years from a developmental viewpoint. Adolescents may thus greatly benefit from a grief support group with other grieving teens. The healing power of knowing that one is not alone is so important in the work of grief at any age, and is crucial at this critical developmental juncture. In addition, the providing of mutual support can help the teen develop compassion and a greater sense of perspective — powerful healing tools in the work of grief and growth.
The following are some suggestions for parents to facilitate the grief process of the grieving adolescent:
• Allow the teen to participate in the planning of funeral and memorial rituals and to attend those rituals
• Encourage the teen to express feelings of anger, sadness and guilt without judgment
• Encourage communication about the circumstances of the death and the teen’s feeling about it
• Encourage communication about the deceased parent’s life and the impact that parent had in the life of the teen, and encourage conversation about the deceased with family members and friends
• Keep memories of the deceased parent alive through collecting mementos, journaling and other forms of self-expression
• Freely express your own feelings of sorrow
• Keep pictures of the deceased parent on display in the home, and look at photo albums and videos together
• Talk about times that might be difficult, such as birthdays, graduation, Mother’s Day/Father’s Day, Superbowl Sunday and other significant times, and discuss creating rituals around those times.
• Talk about how to prepare and get support during the year at those significant times
• If the teen is exhibiting signs of depression, such as consistently expressing negative beliefs about him or herself, extended disruptions in sleeping or eating patterns, extended poor academic performance, acting out or self-destructive behaviors, seek the guidance of an experienced grief therapist
• Be gentle with yourself and continue to get the support you need for your own grief