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Advice to Parents of Grieving Teens: 'What I Did Mostly Was Listen'

With yet another young life lost, our columnist reminds parents to listen, not lecture.

One candle.

One candle was all it took to start a chain reaction of other candles. Soon there were many points of light breaking through the darkness of that evening.  Candles held in a circle by the hands of grieving teenagers, heartbroken by the tragic death of another friend.

I was at a conference last week with a group of high school students when we started receiving text messages, phone calls and Facebook messages telling us that another of our community’s children had died suddenly. We were informed of a candlelight vigil that was to take place in one of our high schools and that many of our teens and their friends would be there.

We wanted to attend, as a gesture of support to a shattered family and a sign of solidarity for the teens that were with us. But being several hours away, we wouldn’t be able to make it.

So late that night, we stood in a circle under a brilliant night time sky and lit that one candle.

That lone candle caused shadows to bounce and tears to fall. 

Another candle was lit, then another and another. Soon our circle was shining with the light of all those candles together. Students standing, holding, crying as we did what we could for those that hurt.

Words were spoken, prayers were prayed, hugs were given and tears were cried.

Death should not come to those who are so young.

And after we were done that night life started to move on. And there is tragedy in that as well. After the past year our community has had, many teens are struggling with loss and the guilt that comes with tomorrow. The anxiety that accompanies the inevitable marching forward of time, of fading memories and of new ones formed.

I have sat and talked with many students this past year about how to handle death and loss. We talked about how to cope with a new reality, one without their friend and how to move forward without losing what made their friendship special. I have attended too many funerals for those not even graduated and held weeping students as they said a final goodbye.

And I am not alone. Many of you reading this have experienced this as well, and unfortunately some of you have experienced this on a far more personal level.

We will all die. We will all have pain and loss in our lives.

But when death and loss and the pain that come with it happens to those too young to even comprehend it how are we to help them process and cope? Let me share with you just a few things that I’ve picked up over the years to help you walk with your child/ren in their pain.

Be Honest

Sometimes, life just sucks. There’s no way around that fact. Bad things happen to good people, nice guys finish last and sometimes the Grinch wins. That’s reality. And there is an appropriate time to let your child know that.

Maybe everything happens for a reason, but maybe it doesn’t. Maybe sometimes things just happen. And when your child comes to you with questions don’t give them cliché answers. If you don’t know then just say “I don’t know”. What your child really needs now is to be heard, not given Hallmark card advice.

One of the hardest parts of being honest is being honest. What I mean is this; if a student dies because of something they did we can have a tendency to skip past that fact and instead lose the lesson that can be learned for our teens. Without getting graphic you can use this time to have serious conversations with your children about choices and consequences. Don’t shy away from this opportunity to pour some wisdom into your child for the sake of their very lives.

Don’t belittle those who have passed on but don’t put a glossy sheen on it either.

Listen

Earlier I said that I have talked with many teens about their loss of a friend. I lied to you a little then. What I did mostly was listen.

More often than not your child just needs an ear to hear what they need to say. They will find someone to hear them so who better than those who love them unconditionally? Stop whatever it is you’re doing and listen. Hear them.

Really hear them. They will call out in their pain. Be ready to hear things that you may not be accustomed to. But understand these words are flowing out of a heartbreak too deep for them to grasp. 

I have heard words come out of the cleanest of mouths that in normal situations would have shocked me, but knowing where a student was allowed to see the hurt they spoke out of and brush past the words themselves.

Be ready to shut up and not lecture.

I’m not saying that you excuse bad behavior or enable unhealthy choices, just be ready for some erratic words and actions during the grieving process. Be ready to listen.

Understand

Understand that each person is different and each person will grieve and cope differently. Some of your children will wear their emotions on their sleeves and will verbally cry out for you attention. Other teens will swallow their pain and compartmentalize their grief. They will try and soldier on and be the “strong one” for their group.

Understand and be ready to react accordingly.

Each one of your children will need something different from you in their time of loss. Some will want you next to them with a box of tissues and a hug and others will need you to give them space. Don’t take one way as better than the next.

And do not take someone’s coping mechanisms as an acceptance or rejection of you personally. How they grieve is not about you as a person or a parent. It's how they are trying to process through something they really shouldn’t have to.

Watch the clues they give you and follow their lead. However, don’t allow them to start down a road to unhealthy decisions based on their grief. Interfere when you must, you are the parent and you will be the best judge as to when that should be. Trust your instincts and in those times when you can’t, seek out professional help immediately.

Love

Love your child. No matter what happens or what they do, love them. 

They are going through things and feelings that many are not ready to handle and they will need your love to steady and anchor them.

Many students act out during a time of great loss. Some will turn to chemicals to help them forget. Some seek the solace of another’s bed. Some turn to their loved ones during their pain. Regardless of what happens you must love them.

Love doesn’t mean excusing stupidity in the face of loss, but it does mean understanding. Set appropriate boundaries and tell them no when you need to. Don’t let your child slide off into the abyss because you’re afraid to hurt their feelings even more.

For many children, the loss of a friend can be a turn for the worse in their own lives. You should not allow that to happen. Love can be gentle when the times call for that but realize it can also be stern when the times call for that.

Love them in the fashion they need when they need it.

Please know that this is in no way a complete list or advice from a licensed therapist. It’s just thoughts from my decade plus of working with students and their families. 

I need you to understand one more thing before I’m done as well . . .

You are not perfect. Do not put undue pressure on yourself. We all get some right and we all get some wrong. That’s life. But if you can do just these small things, you’re going to get more right than you do wrong.

Our thoughts and prayers go out to the hurting friends and families members of those taken far too quickly from this life.  May peace beyond understanding guard your hearts and minds and may we all honor their lives by the way that we live ours.

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