In adolescence, death can happen to a friend in a variety of ways, each way a frightful reminder of one’s impermanence at a time when one can feel so full of life and promise. Shattered can be the cherished illusions of vulnerability and of having all the time in the world, a future without end.
There is death from Disease that warns how you can catch death by exposure. There is death by Accident that warns how you can meet death by mischance. There is death from adventurous Risk Taking that warns of how daring can lead to death. There is death from Suicide that warns you can choose death to end suffering. There is death from Social Violence that warns how aggression from others can result in death.
Although each cause is different, with its own set of safety issues to consider, in all cases of adolescent death, other adolescents are put on varying degrees of notice. In high school, for example, when an adolescent dies, there are what I have come to think of as three concentric circles of emotional impact.
Least impact is on the outer circle where the victim is mostly unknown. Here the death is treated as a troubling event and may be processed through shared concern and conversation about how death has paid a visit nearby.
More impact is on the next circle where the victim is a social acquaintance whose absence will be noticed, even missed. Here the loss may be processed through attending informal or formal gatherings of comfort and commemoration.
Most impact is in the center circle where victim is a close friend and valued companionship has ended. Here the loss may be processed through personal mourning and intense self-reflection.
It’s the adolescents who fall in this inner circle of emotional impact that this blog is about, those for whom deadly loss of a close or best friend can be a life changing experience.
When an adolescent dies, for the close friend something in them can die as well. Sharing so much, caring so much, confiding so much, the loss of this valued relationship leaves their world sadly diminished. “I don’t have anyone to tell my secrets to anymore. I have no one who knows me so well. I have no one that close I can call. I feel like I have lost a part of myself.” This last is true because the friendship was from and for the friend, but now there is no friend to connect that caring to. Now there is an emotional wound to heal.
In counseling the bereft young person, after listening to what this friend has meant to them, moving through stages of grief (for one model, see stages proposed by Elisabeth Kubler-Ross), we often end up talking about how the loss has altered their former simpler view of life. This alteration occurs by the young person asking a series of mortality questions for which no one right set of answers can be found, questions that may sound like these.
“How can such a bad thing happen to such a good person?” “How can people die so young?” “What about having a future and growing old?” “What’s the point of life if death can happen any time?” “What really matters?” “What’s the point of living?” “What can you really count on?” “What’s the meaning of life?” “What is life for?” “What am I supposed to do with my life so long as I have it?” I don’t have the answers, but I try to support the young person in their painful quest to create understanding.
Although sometimes provoking acts of protest against the senselessness and unfairness of death, in most cases I believe mortality questions are clarifying because they cause the young woman or man to engage in a level of reflection that can restructure their perception and reorganize their priorities. Now their life, and their view of life is changed.
When this kind of alteration occurs, a very lonely thing can happen next. In this painful process of self-reflection, from taking life very seriously the young person can begin maturing beyond their age and age-mates whose social interests and view of life begin to seem younger, even superficial, compared with deeper matters that preoccupy the young survivor now. As she or he increasingly feels out of step with peers, there is a growing sense of no longer fitting in and so of being more alone.
Seeing this growth occur (because growing through pain of loss is what it is), parents of the young person can do a number of helpful things. They can provide interim social companionship so that the adolescent doesn’t feel she or he has to be unaccompanied at this vulnerable time. They can help find alternative and more age-advanced activities that fit new maturity that has been gained. And they can locate some short term counseling to help their daughter or son process what is a life changing adjustment to a dear friend’s death.
In one final way they can sometimes also be helpful when the adolescent is trying to piece together an explanation of what contributed to the friend’s death. In counseling with the teenage survivor, particularly if the cause of adolescent death was an accident, social violence, extreme risk taking, or suicide, the possible involvement of substances needs to be raised. When the friend’s death was enabled by substance use, helping the survivor acknowledge this reality can provide a life-serving lesson.
Exploring this possibility must not be done in blaming way, but in an effort to identity factors that may help explain the tragedy. Thus the question might be: “Do you think this death would have happened if there had been no substance use by your friend or by others involved?” So many adolescent fatalities are linked to alcohol or other drug use.
Always, I believe, a close friend’s death in adolescence is formative; and sometimes it can have an important cautionary lesson to teach.
Next week’s entry: Conducting Verbal Conflict with Your Adolescent