You've attended parent-teacher conferences. You've taken them to checkups. You've talked to them about sex and bullies and drugs. But how can you, moms and dads, possibly prepare your kids for dealing with death? How can you explain the unexplainable and console the unconsolable? You can't protect your teenagers from the sickening grief of losing a friend. Or a cousin. Or a grandparent. But you can be there for them, ready to talk and (maybe more importantly) ready to listen. Here are five ways parents can support their grieving teenagers:
Discuss perspective. "When we're hit with a big emotional trauma, we become very self-absorbed in our own feelings, because they can become so big and overwhelming," says D'Arcy Lyness, a child and adolescent psychologist and behavioral health editor for Nemours' KidsHealth.org. To tap into both your own feelings and those of others, it's almost like "bobbing your head above water," she says. You develop perspective. You feel empathy. You realize you're not alone in your grief.
To discuss perspective, Lyness suggests parents start by asking their teens open-ended questions about their feelings: "What's this like for you right now? What do you think about when you're missing so-and-so?" Listen intently. If you, as the parent, are grieving as well, express your own perspective. If the person was young and died suddenly, for example, you may describe how you feel more protective of your teen. Maybe you even feel scared for him or her. This could be a valuable point of view for your teenager to see as you crack down on curfew or perhaps treat her like a kid.
Also ask your teen to consider the grief from other people's perspectives. What do you think this person's mother is feeling? If, say, a cousin died: "How do you think Grandma is feeling?" It's not a grief competition. It's not a grief guilt trip. It's a conversation. Discuss how grief is different for everyone, and no one is in it alone. This will remind your child that, "When someone dies, grief touches many people, and everyone will heal through it together," Lyness says.
And consider your teen's perspective. You've (hopefully) listened thoroughly as your teen described her feelings. Beyond that, remember that as your child navigates adolescence, she may become less likely than before to talk to Mom or Dad about everything. "They're trying to figure out where they are in the world," says Jana DeCristofaro, coordinator of children's grief services at The Dougy Center for Grieving Children & Families in Portland, Oregon. They're also contemplating who they are in relation to family and peer groups, DeCristofaro says. Keep that in mind should your teen consult with friends before you as she grieves -- especially if it was another young person who died.
And consider that a teenager's engagement with technology may be different than yours or an older generation's -- yes, in Instagram obsessions, but also in grieving. While, say, sharing photos and status updates over a lost relative via Facebook may rub the aunties the wrong way, Lyness and DeCristofaro point out that this is many people's (not just teens') modern way of memorializing. Of course, others certainly have the right to feel stung by seeing, say, a public photo of the recently deceased and an emotional statement shared on social media. But for folks who grew up with the Internet, in some ways, it's not much different than expressing feelings and sharing memories in church, letters or photo collages.
Expect existential questions. Everyone grieves differently. And, of course, situational factors play a part, such as how emotionally close this person was and how he or she died. For teens, there are extra variables: Where are they developmentally in adolescence? Is this the first death of a loved one they've experienced? This is also a time in life when many young people start considering the big questions, Lyness says. "Grandma is in heaven" doesn't cut it anymore.
"As we enter adolescence, our brain focuses on the mysterious, profound and existential," Lyness says. And what can probe existential thoughts more than the concept of life and death? Teenagers, thus, may become absorbed in unanswerable, sometimes spiritual questions. What did Sam's life mean? What does my life mean? And where do we go after we die?
For teens, whose brains are still developing, the mass of these larger-than-life, unanswered questions can be overwhelming. For parents, the thought of providing answers to these questions can seem equally daunting. But there's a catch: There are no right answers. "Acknowledge, 'Yeah, it's really hard to wrap my head around it. I wish I had an answer, but I don't,'" Lyness says. She adds, "Sometimes we want to make people feel better by wrapping it in a pillow, but it's OK to say, 'I don't know.'"
Add something positive about how you, personally, stay grounded while still living with the mysteries. Lyness suggests something like, "And here's how I live with that unanswered question. Here's what I think. Here's how I imagine it. Here's what I believe."
Find support. If you, the parent, are struggling with your grief as well, don't be shy about finding mental health support. Seeing a specialized counselor, psychologist or social worker will help you manage your feelings while ensuring you're emotionally fit to help your teen. Plus, DeCristofaro points out, "It models to kids that it's OK to get help. It doesn't mean you're weak or broken."
As for the mental health of their children, parents should look for significant behavioral changes, DeCristofaro says. If the teen is unable to go to school, for example, and certainly if there is any suicide talk, parents need to find him or her mental health support.
Continually check in. DeCristofaro points out that it can mean a lot to teens (and anyone) to know that other people are thinking of the bereaved long after the "With Sympathy" cards stop coming. Parents shouldn't hesitate to mention the person who died around significant dates, like birthdays, and when he or she is on their mind. Thanksgiving isn't quite the same without Susan, is it? I feel depressed that Dad's birthday is coming up; how are you feeling?
Sometimes people want to avoid these emotionally loaded conversations, Lyness says, even if it's an eight-word check in. Sometimes they may get a little emotional. Sometimes they cry. "But those are healing moments," she says. And often, even if you don't want to bring up the sensitive topic and upset the other person, he or she may be thinking of it anyway. She encourages parents to start with "I" statements. "I was thinking of Aunt Jean the other day." Or, "It's been a year since Grandpa died, and I feel like it was yesterday." Launching into, "how do you feel" can be a "conversation shutdown," Lyness says.
Even if the conversation ends swiftly after your "I" statement, your teen may feel the sentiment deeply and appreciate you reaching out. "Sometimes the other person doesn't have to say anything," Lyness says. "But that gives them permission to bring up the conversation any time."
[Read: 7 Ways to Help a Loved One Grieve.]