Grief is a term often associated with death and dying. Perhaps there are many kinds of loss that bring feelings of grief. It is a part of life that is uncomfortable for most adults. But what does it look like for an adolescent?
There is a young boy whose elderly grandfather dies. He is struck by the news of his death. Because of the distance, he is unable to go to the funeral. His mother goes and when she returns, the family gathers and grieves this loss for a short time and then gets back into routine. The young boy doesn't want routine, he wants to see his grandpa and talk to him one more time. No one notices his pain and he doesn't know what to do with it. So, he secretly thinks of jumping off a building.
There is a 16-year-old girl who grew up with a mother that was addicted to substances. She cried for help and when no help came, she found herself in many of the same circumstances that she saw her mother in. Eventually she is overcome with grief for the loss she felt about not having a "normal" family. Her relationship with her mother is strained and difficult.
Then, there's the senior boy whose parents lost everything, their jobs, their house, their livelihood. They are so stuck in their own grief, they only see how strong the boy pretends to be so his parents won't worry about him. His strategy is seen by extended family and he ends up going to live with them as his parents work their way back.
Loss doesn't have to be a death. With each experience, children can feel a loss of self, a loss of security and a loss of meaning. Whatever it is, we need to be very outreach-oriented. We need to let them know we see them. YouthZone also offers grief counseling for children.
Dr. Alan Wolfelt, of the Center for Loss and Life Transitions, says that children are often seen as the "forgotten mourners" because they are resilient and nobody knows how to talk to them. So they don't.
It is said that kids will teach us more about their grief through their behaviors, not their words.
Wouldn't it be great if our teenager said to us, "I want to tell you how I'm feeling. I'm so sad I think my heart will never heal and I will spend the rest of my life being sad." Even if they could express themselves, how would we respond?
We often want to intellectualize feelings with responses that take us away from talking about feelings:
You just need to stay busy. There must have been a reason; It's okay; Just give it time; We are never given more than we can handle; They are in a better place.
Or, we try to replace it: Don't feel bad, we can get you a new dog; We'll get a new house and it will be even better; You'll get a new boyfriend.
Dr. Wolfelt recommends that we affirm the loss before it can be transcended. We need to help them hold up their story while they work through it. Acknowledge, affirm and be their companion. It's not about assessing, analyzing, fixing or resolving their grief. Just be present to them. Befriend the pain of their loss. Talk about their loss, anchor the memories. They will be searching for meaning. Providing ongoing support will be very important. Remember that the time frame belongs to them.
Maybe Charlie Brown from the Peanuts cartoon had it right all this time with his common expression, "GOOD GRIEF!". Please call YouthZone at 945-9300 if you would like support.
- Tina Olson is a Youth and Family Specialist at YouthZone.