As I prepare to speak to teen girls about brutal lies and cultural myths that we get so easily caught up in, writing about some of them on this blog has really helped me organize my thoughts. I hope it has been beneficial to your journey as well. Revisiting memories has been understandably painful at times, but it’s also been a huge blessing to see just how far God will go to rescue someone; that everyone is valuable to Him; and sticking through the rough times reaps beautiful blessings on the other side.
Two cents. That’s all I have in my pockets today. I want to offer my two cents with some tips that may help smooth some rough spots with teenagers when life gets hard. I am not a trained professional. My opinions are based on my experience, what I’ve learned in college and as a volunteer. What works for some may not work for others. Always consult a qualified professional before making significant changes in a teen’s life who has suffered loss.
* When dealing with a teen who has a sick or dying parent, don’t take I’m fine as an answer. Certainly don’t push the teen to talk, but understand that those two words have little to no value. If you hear them, let it be a red flag that you may want to follow-up on. Sometimes they may not be up to talking, but they can also be testing you to see if your inquiry to their well-being is genuine or if it is really just to ease your own conscious. Don’t ask them how they are doing. How do you think they are doing? Instead, ask how they are holding up.
* Familiarize yourself with the 5 stages of grief: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, acceptance. Website of grief stages and their explanations.
* Understand that everyone grieves differently. People should never compare grieving! We are unique, as are our experiences and how we process them, and it is completely unfair to place our own expectations on someone else. Judge not – it’s like kicking them when their down.
* Understand that the first 12 months are extremely important in grieving. This doesn’t mean we count the months beginning in January, it means 365 days from the day the parent died. Think about it, there are so many things that happen in a year (holidays, school events, social events, big and small moments in life that surround a particular date or memory), a full cycle needs to be lived out in order to understand life is never going to be the way it used to be. Quirky family traditions for April Fool’s Day may change, first-day-of-school dinner may not happen, you know, family stuff – it’s all different now. Be patient with the teen as they try to live through a year of firsts so they can begin to find a new sense of normal. Yes, a full year. I believe productive grieving can take place during that year, but life needs a year just to walk through each of the 365 days of being and feeling different.
* The Hospice website is an excellent resource for the whole family. They offer priceless words of wisdom for teens, as well as a host of other resources for children, parents and caregivers. I highly recommend this site for caregivers, family and close friends.
* Listen. Listen. Listen. Don’t be so quick to offer a resolution, solution, or fix. Just listen to them. It’s amazing what can surface when a teen actually gets to have our undivided attention.
* For trusted friends and family – be there. You don’t have to say anything, just offer a presence. Teens who have suffered significant loss are waiting for everyone else to leave, too. Find something the teen likes to do and offer your time with permission (i.e., watch sports, walk the dog, go to the movies).
* You can’t replace the loved one they’ve lost, but you can help ease the pain. Remember back-to-school shopping I wrote about? Perhaps offer to fill in a gap when the teen doesn’t know how to ask for help.
* Make your home a safe place. Teens go through a lot every day – even on the best day hormones are raging and emotions can be unpredictable. In a safe environment (not just physical, but emotionally safe meaning they feel free to be themselves without judgement) the teen can drop their guard and may just open their heart.
* Say the name of, and talk about, the parent who died. One of the most painful aspects of grieving is that the loved one becomes invisible – as if he or she never existed. People are either too uncomfortable or too worried they’ll upset the teen if they mention the parent, therefore nothing gets said. For me, it was literally years before anyone ever said my mom’s name (my own family never even mentioned her). It was an old friend of my mom’s who approached me. She didn’t know that my mom had died. This friend asked how she was doing. I told her, and the friend immediately began apologizing up and down. I interrupted her and said, Thank you. You’re the first person to say her name to me in years. It’s feels good to hear others remember her. It was about 5 years after my mom died when I realized I had forgotten what her voice sounded like. It absolutely devastated me! I cried and cried. Their legacy, memories and media (photos, video) are really all we have left. Give the teen the chance to relive good memories when they’re ready. It can be very healing.
* Offer to help. There may be large needs you may or may not be able to help with, but I can promise you there are a myriad of small needs beloved friends and family can help meet. If the teen is in sports, drama, music or any performance activity, offer to attend. Empty seats are a heart-breaker. Remember the teen’s birthday with a card or phone call. Remember the deceased parent’s birthday with a card or phone call. Offer to help rake the leaves in the fall, plant flowers in the spring, or go for ice cream on a Saturday afternoon. Just being there is so helpful. Offering a hand and sharing a smile in the everyday moments of life make the big milestones (holidays, anniversaries, birthdays, etc.) more bearable. If everyone close to the teen each did one thing, just think about what a difference that would make to remind them they are valuable, loved, and remembered.
* Consider letting the teen make some decisions about their life when appropriate. One of the best gifts my grandparents ever gave me was the freedom to let me choose whether or not to attend my high school graduation. I DID NOT want to attend for various valid reasons. They didn’t push the issue with me. Today, I still don’t regret it. Situations are different for everyone, but if a teen feels adamant about something that isn’t earth-shattering or life-changing, at least be patient and listen to their side. Teens in grief may appreciate feeling a little bit of control over their life in times of unrest. My decision came almost a year after my mom’s death. Careful consideration should be made concerning the 5 stages of grief and the teen.
* If you have pictures of the parent, scan copies and compose a small photo book for the teen. Maybe add some short text about a funny story or memory; or what was special about the parent or how they positively impacted your life. People have different roles in each other’s lives. I can only imagine how wonderful it would be to have photos of my mom at work, out with girlfriends, etc. in roles other than as I knew her – Mom. Online printing companies and superstores print these photo books for little cost nowadays. It may take a few hours of your life to do this, but it will give the teen a lifelong treasure. Wait for the appropriate time to give this gift to the teen.
* If I haven’t stressed this point enough already, make yourself available. It may take days, weeks or months for a teen to be ready to talk, share or do stuff together, but just knowing you are willing to invest in their life can help talk a teen down from their proverbial ledge. In the meantime, keep a watchful eye on symptoms that need to be addressed by a professional. Offer a shoulder to lean on, an ear to listen, a heart to feel and hands to help, but know when to encourage the teen to seek professional help. They are trained in the most appropriate ways to assist the teen to work through their grieving. Our best attempt at “counseling” may prove to hurt the situation more than it would help.
I hope these suggestions have helped shed some light on an issue too dimly lit. Teens are far too often swept under the rug because adults don’t give teens enough credit that they have thoughts, opinions, feelings, questions, and words that need to purged. Most teens are profoundly affected by parent loss. Literally, the teen’s future hangs in the balance of how healthy the grieving process has been. Research is downright scary for teens who are unheard, ignored, and not helped through every stage of grieving. It could be the beginning of a downward spiral, or, with proper attention and care, the teen can come through the entire experience with hope, optimism, healing and strength.
Give the teen in your life every opportunity to grieve, mourn, heal and realize their full potential. They have the rest of their lives ahead of them. May they experience the abundant life Jesus calls them to in John 10:10 – The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy; I have come that they may have life, and have it to the full.