Teenagers often give their parents things to worry about. Most of the worries I hear about concern their child's wellbeing after the death of the other parent. Many fear that their child is not grieving in a way that they can identify as grief. They worry this lack of grieving can have a negative impact on their child's future mental health.
Sometimes there is reason for concern. I can think of one situation where a brother and sister got involved taking drugs and they were subsequently picked up by the police for driving a stolen car. What was happening in this family? As it turned out, there was nobody paying attention to the children. Their father described himself after the death of his wife as a couch potato. He went to work and came home and simply sat lost in his own grief. He said that it took him six months to realize that, while he had lost his wife, his children had lost their mother. He didn't know how they got to school or what they ate. What the children said about this was that they wished their mother was alive so that they could be a family again. It becomes clear that the surviving parent's ability to continue to parent makes a big difference in how the child copes. Children, regardless of their age, need care and connection.
Much of what we know about grief is primarily framed in problem behavior, so that even the most involved parent can worry. One father questioned me about his son's wellbeing. He asked what he should look for to know whether or not his child was in trouble. His son was doing very well in school, he was admitted to the college of his choice, he had an active social life, but he would not talk with his father about his mother's death. This alone caused the father to fear for his son's future. Does the fact that the child has difficulty talking about his deceased parent or sharing his feelings indicate that there will be psychological difficulties in his or her future?
What do teenagers say about this? They say they need their parent's attention; to know that he or she is there to take care of them, and they also need to hear that these are difficult times, but together they will learn and they will go on. Teenagers need to know about the family's financial situation and what the death means for how the family will manage. They cannot take the role of the dead parent, nor should they be expected to. They also need to know what changes may take place in the way the family lives together and manages, and how they can be helpful. They need to know that it is okay to show their feelings if they want to, and to talk about their now dead parent; but they also need to know that there is no given time within which they must do this. They need to know that their wish to be quiet is respected. They need to know that their surviving parent can reflect on their own behavior with their children, and if he or she shares some of their own pain, their children are not expected to fix it. Teens need a sense of security and safety, and that can be more important than anything else. Just as you may not know what is going on inside, your children may not know either.
What does grief look like? I'm not sure. I recall a widowed mother telling me that her eight-year-old son told her that he didn't want to go to school His friend told him that if he was really sad that his father died, he would be crying all the time, why wasn't he?. He couldn't do what his friend wanted and so he decided not to go to school anymore. Is his friend right? Should he be crying all the time? Maybe they were both seeking ways to understand what this kind of loss means. Crying reflects some of the sense of catastrophe that can come with the loss of a parent. However, it doesn't begin to reflect what such a death can mean, and we all can't cry on cue or in public.
One of the problems most of us have, and teenagers are no exception, is to find appropriate words for what we are feeling. As we get older, we may build a vocabulary from our experience. But in young families this may be a family's first experience with death. Where are the words for the tumult, the changes, and the pain? How do we know we will survive? This makes it even more difficult when we talk about sharing. This ability to understand and find expression may be an evolving process that needs time -- time to understand what has happened and what this enormous loss means in the life of this child. For many, it is only with this time and a new perspective that they can begin to talk about the meaning of the loss in their lives, and only then can they find words for their grief.
Parent's need others to help them find their way, to help them as they support their children. Children need some of the same things. We begin to see the value of others who share the same experience. This subject came up at a recent meeting of the Research Committee of The Children's Room in Arlington, MA. Some of the members of the committee had attended a workshop at The Children's Room, on the subject: Grief in Young Adults. Several of the speakers were young adults who had experienced the death of a parent in their teen years. They talked about their difficulty, at the time, in talking about what this meant and what they were feeling. They felt that the help came when they went to college. Here, for the first time they met themselves as young adults, and found an unexpected ease in sharing what it had been like for them after the death of one of their parents. They found that a kind of sharing and opening up becomes possible as never before. Together these young adults said they found words, could give each other support, and they learned to live with the past as they moved to the future. When no opportunities spontaneously arise, students often organize an opportunity for themselves. We describe what one student did to set up a bereavement group when she came to college, in our book A Parent's Guide to Raising Grieving Children. Recently, a new national organization has been formed by grieving college students. The organization's express purpose is to make it possible for college students to help each other when dealing with the death of a parent or when a parent is dying. Their address is www.StudentsofAMF.org