By Marilyn E. Gootman, Ed.D., author of When a Friend Dies: A Book for Teens About Grieving & Healing (Updated 3rd Edition)
Helping teens grieving the death of a friend is one of the most difficult tasks one must face. Yet, if we ignore or cover up teens’ pain, we will only make it worse for them, and for us, in the long run. So what can adults do to help? Employ the “Three Rs”: Reassure, Reason, and Redirect.
Physical changes and bubbling chemical factories of hormones propel teens on an emotional roller coaster. A death adds even more turmoil to their feelings. All teens have their own unique twist to grief, because layered over their grief are their focus on themselves, their need for peer approval and support, and their struggle to establish their own identity and sense of personal power. We can help teens with all three by reassuring, reasoning, and redirecting.
Focus on Themselves
Self-consciousness surfaces full force during grief.
“Am I normal?” Teens look to their peers to guide and judge how they should act.
We can reassure them that there is no one right way to grieve and that all people are entitled to express their feelings in their own ways. Pain is pain, no matter how it looks on the outside.
“Will I feel like this forever?” Teens may worry that these feelings will not go away. They may panic about whether something is wrong with them when they are suddenly overtaken by sadness after they have started feeling better.
We can reassure teens that with the passage of time, the leaden ache in their hearts will gradually lighten. We can reassure them that it is normal for their grief to resurface at times. Grief comes in waves. The magnitude and frequency of the waves diminish over time.
“Why can’t I feel anything?” “My mind is frozen. I can’t think.” Some teens panic, thinking they are going insane or “losing it,” when their minds shut down from an overload of grief.
We can reassure them that being too stunned to feel anything is a normal reaction to grief. Shock is nature’s way of protecting our minds from being overwhelmed. We can redirect teens to express their grief—by talking, writing, drawing, and so on. Sharing their feelings will help their minds slowly begin to defrost and adjust to their loss.
Need for Peer Support and Approval
During the teen years, many young people shift their allegiance from adults to their peer group. Peers become teens’ primary source for standards and models of behavior.
“Is it wrong to go to parties and have fun?” Is it fair for teens to enjoy themselves when their friend no longer can? Won’t teens seem cold and uncaring if they allow themselves to have fun?
We can reason with teens by explaining that staying sad all the time won’t help them or their friend. Teens need our permission to go on with their lives. They need us to reassure them that they have a right, as well as a responsibility, to enjoy life and to get meaning out of it even though their friend is gone.
“If I get close to other people, won’t I betray my friend?” Many teens worry so much about disloyalty to a dead friend that they go out of their way to avoid new friendships. As we know, this isolation can only lead to more problems down the road.
Once again, we can reason with teens by explaining that they can remain loyal to their friend and still reach out to others. We can explain that isolating themselves will not help their friend who died and will most likely hurt them. In fact, needing friends is a tribute to the friend who died. After all, that friend taught teens the importance and meaning of friendship.
Some teens worry that the next person they get friendly with may die as well. Of course, we can’t give teens any guarantees, but we can reason with them that it is extremely unlikely that another friend will die. We can reassure them that reaching out to others will lessen their pain and will help them through this difficult time.
Establishing Their Own Identity and a Sense of Personal Power
The teen years are when young people set out to define who they are and break away from their parents, determined to forge their own paths in life. They want to feel all powerful.
“Why did this happen to me? It’s not fair.” “Why did you let it happen?” “How could you leave me?” Furious, teens may want to blame someone else for robbing them and their friend of power—their friend’s parents, a boyfriend or girlfriend, or even a god or other religious figure. They may even rage at the person who died.
By encouraging teens to talk, we can help them process their feelings. As we listen, we can reassure teens that they have a right to be angry. What happened certainly isn’t fair. It isn’t right. We can also redirect them to constructive ways to release their anger. Physical exercise and activism are among the possibilities we can suggest to redirect teens’ anger to positive outlets.
“If only I had . . .” “I wish I hadn’t . . .” In addition to anger, guilt is another common response when death renders us powerless. It is particularly terrifying to be suddenly left powerless by death. Guilt is a tool many teens (as well as adults) use to prevent themselves from feeling overwhelmed by this powerlessness. We try to convince ourselves that we could have done something to prevent the death but didn’t. We fool ourselves by saying we had power but blew it.
Not only are these ideas incorrect, but they also are dangerous to teens’ mental health. We can reassure teens that they are not guilty and that it is neither fair nor reasonable for them to expect to have stopped someone else’s death. We can redirect them to positive sources of power, such as adopting a cause special to their friend, planting a tree, or establishing a memorial. Any activity that can help them effect positive changes can steer them away from destructive guilt.
Helping grieving teens, by reassuring them when they are plagued by worries and anxieties, reasoning with them when their emotions take over and they cannot think rationally, and redirecting them when they channel anger and guilt in potentially destructive directions, can be one of our greatest gifts to them.
Marilyn E. Gootman, Ed.D., is founder of Gootman Education Associates, an educational consulting company that provides workshops and seminars for parents and educators focusing on successful strategies for raising and teaching children. Dr. Gootman has been in the teaching profession for over 25 years, and her teaching experiences range from elementary school to the university level. The author of numerous books and articles, she is known nationally for her advocacy efforts on behalf of children, parents, and teachers. Her media appearances include CNN and other major networks as well as radio and television broadcasts throughout the United States and Canada. Marilyn and her husband, Elliot, are the parents of three grown children.
Marilyn is the author of When a Friend Dies.