Too young to die: Helping your teen cope with a friend’s death

My daughter’s classmate passed away last year, and my she was devastated. I was not prepared for the level of her grief. For weeks, she vacillated from wanting to talk non-stop about it, to closing her door and saying she wanted to be alone.

On too many occasions, our small community has been rocked by the tragic passing of a teenager whose life was suddenly cut short. Unfortunately, this is not uncommon, and parents and community members need to be prepared for the aftermath.

Expected behaviors

Parents should understand that their teen will experience a wide range of emotions. There are times when she might need to be with peers, but there are also times when she needs the comfort of knowing her parents will drop everything and lend an ear or a shoulder.

“Teens may become angry, confused, and frightened by the way they are feeling, the way others are feeling, and by others’ reactions to their feelings,” explains Dr. Michelle P. Maidenberg, a psychotherapist and clinical director of Westchester Group Works, a Center for Group Therapy in Harrison, N.Y. “It is important that this array of feelings be acknowledged and that teens are provided support and a safe place to express them.”

Dr. Jerry Weichman, a clinical psychologist and adolescent specialist in Newport Beach, Calif., reports, “Sometimes teens do not follow the stages of grief in a linear fashion and bounce around stages. I have found that more sensitive individuals take longer to get through the stages of shock and disbelief, anger, bargaining, depression, and eventually acceptance.”

“Bereaved teens typically become anxious over the safety of other loved ones or themselves. They may have physical complaints without a disease or illness to account for them. This happens especially for teens who experience their friend dying from an illness,” Maidenberg asserts.

Parental support

Aurora Winter, founder of the Grief Coach Academy and author of “From Heartbreak to Happiness,” explains, “It is uncomfortable for a parent to see her teen suffering.”

However, Winter says that grief is normal and natural, and can eventually unfold into something positive.

“The good news is that studies show that after grief, people can experience post-traumatic growth.”

Parents need to give their teen space when needed.

“If they don’t want to talk about the death, then don’t push the issue. If they want to talk about it, then be there for them,” Maidenberg counsels. “Talking about the death and directly addressing their questions helps empower a teen, especially if it is an unexpected and sudden death.”

Weichman agrees that parents need to follow their teen’s lead.

“Respect the times that teens do not want to discuss the situation, but be an attentive listener when they do. Do not try to ‘fix’ the situation. Just listen.”

“Small things can make a huge difference, such as maintaining a regular routine, going for walks together, and providing healthy meals,” says Winter. She also recommends that parents provide a hub for their teen’s friends to band together to honor their deceased friend in a special way (e.g. plant a tree or host a dinner in their friend’s honor).

“Challenge teens to come up with a creative idea of their own.”

Tips and tales

“During those first few days, I found the kids relied more on each other. I provided a house, some food, or a ride to wherever they needed. Parents shouldn’t rush their child through the grieving process or expect it to be over in a few months. There were several instances when I had to contact a teacher about late work, because my daughter was experiencing a lack of focus, obsessive worry about death, and just general depression.”

Sharon Squire, Hyde Park, NY

“Help your child focus their grief towards something good. I helped my children participate in planning and building a memorial garden, participating in scholarship fund-raising efforts, and creating a memorial at their school.”

Lynne Schiffer, Staatsburg, NY

Share your ideas

Upcoming topic: Do teens stick to resolutions? Tips to help teens find resolutions that are manageable.

Send your full name, address, and brief comments to myrnahaskell@gmail.com or visit www.myrnahaskell.com.

Myrna Beth Haskell is a feature writer, columnist, and author of “Lions and Tigers and Teens: Expert advice and support for the conscientious parent just like you” (Unlimited Publishing LLC, 2012), available at Amazon.com.