The recent murder of Maren Sanchez at Jonathan Law High School hit close to home, since I grew up one town over from Milford, and had friends who went to school there. I also have friends and relatives who teach in Connecticut, and have been trying to help their students cope with not only the loss of a sense of safety, but in some cases, the death of a friend.
When adolescents lose a peer, it is likely to be to a quick and violent death. The top three causes of death for teens are car accidents, suicide, and homicide. Sudden deaths can be harder to cope with than deaths that were expected, and violent deaths can be the hardest of all.
There was an excellent article in the Huffington Post about some differences between adolescent and adult grieving. After reading his piece, I wanted to give some tips for how to help your teen move through the terrible experience of losing a peer.
Teen grief can look different. The article above covers some of the differences. When adults grieve, we have a pretty solid idea of what that might look like (at least, in our own culture.) For teens, grief may not look like “standard” grief. They may act sad, furious, clingy, irritable, and/ or completely unfazed. Sometimes you won’t see a change in emotions, but you might see your teen isolating themselves more, changing their activities, disobeying rules, or struggling at school. The only way to tell if and how your teen is grieving is to ask.
Talk about it. Even if you do ask how your teen is feeling, or how they’re grieving, you may not get a complete answer. Keep asking, or if they’re irritable with questions, simply make acknowledgments like “I know this is hard, I’m here to talk whenever you want.” See if you can spend time with them in circumstances where talking is easier. Drive them somewhere for away. Take them out for ice cream. Have them help you with a home project. Seek out times when there is relative silence, and it’s just the two of you (and electronic devices are off.)
Encourage your teen to grieve with friends. Prom was postponed after Maren Sanchez was killed, and teens from the high school gathered on the beach that day for a vigil. Group rituals can help your teen express grief and feel less isolated. Encourage your teen to talk with their friends, attend a funeral, go to a vigil, and engage in other group activities to mourn and honor the dead. Sometimes teens will set up a Facebook memorial page or commiserate on social media. We don’t have much research on this, but it makes sense that electronic communication would also lessen a sense of isolation.
Be prepared for existential questions. Teens may wonder what their fallen peer’s life meant, as well as the meaning of such an early death. If their peer died in an accident, teens may wonder (as we all do) what to make of this random, terrible act of fate. If a peer died because someone killed them, or they killed themselves, teens can be caught up in anger, and wonder how to reconcile such violence with everyday life. Religious teens may wonder why a deity would allow such an awful thing to happen. Listen to your teen’s questions and talk about how you have found answers- or, at least, solace- in your life when dealing with loss. If you have access to a religious or spiritual leader your teen trusts, make sure there is time for the two of them to have a heart-to-heart.
Watch for signs of depression. A sudden loss can be a trigger for depression, and depression needs to be perceived and addressed as soon as possible.
Consider grief counseling. Grief counselors are experts at helping people of all ages come to terms with losing loved ones. For teens, who in many cases are still learning how to cope with strong emotions, an experienced grief counselor can be extraordinarily helpful. It can be a relief for teens to talk to someone who has no other job but to listen and help them sort through their emotions.
Give strong messages about suicide. If your teen’s peer died of suicide, make sure you tell your teen (in a respectful way) that this person may not have been able to think clearly, but in the end they made the wrong choice. Community responses to suicide can sometimes inadvertently glorify it (this guide for schools discusses how to avoid that), and some think this leads to the “suicide contagion” effect. A teen committing suicide is a tragedy, and that teen deserves to be mourned and honored. However, it should be made clear that the suicide itself was the wrong path to choose, and that if that teen reached out for help, they would still have their lives in front of them. Make sure your teen knows that if they are ever thinking of hurting themselves or ending their life, they need to talk to you or an adult they trust right away. Moreover, if they are ever worried a peer is going to try to commit suicide, they need to seek help from an adult immediately.
Any other ideas on how to help teens deal with loss and grieving?