Who, if given the option, would relive being a teenager? That pimply phase of in-betweens—no longer a child, not quite an adult—may be life’s most emotionally fraught. And when something goes wrong, like the death of a loved one, it can throw an already vulnerable 15-year-old into a state that no one around them knows how to handle.
That was true for Joanna, a former model and Peace Corps volunteer, who I met in Prague in the 90s. We’d come after college to drink cheap Pilsner and write the next great American novel. Awed by her imposing beauty, I was often too intimidated to look directly into her enormous, Manga-like blue eyes. But as I got to know her, Joanna became as real as a velveteen rabbit—smart and bubbly and the kind of gal who loved cracking a dirty New York joke. After our year as expats, we landed on opposite coasts and lost touch. It wasn’t until we reconnected on Facebook 25 years later that she told me about her troubled past.
Just before Joanna turned 15, her mother died from Leukemia with little warning. Joanna was an only child and received a lot of sympathy at first. But she still had one parent, and from the outside, everything appeared to be fine. “My father only cared about appearances, so when we were out in public he was affectionate and complimentary so others would not interfere,” Joanna says. “But he was a stranger to me. He had no interest in my feelings.”
When the woman who ultimately became Joanna’s stepmother moved in later that year, she immediately began erasing any sign of her predecessor—first selling Joanna’s mother’s antiques, then banishing the cats. Joanna knew better than to object. Her father verbally threatened her. She was terrified of him.
Now in her late-forties, she copes with “something like PTSD” and is still sorting through it all in therapy. “I wish someone had gained my trust and started a dialogue with me,” Joanna says. “I believe it would have changed my life.”
In writing our book, A Beginner’s Guide to the End, BJ Miller and I heard many stories from adults who’d lost parents as teens and felt they didn’t get enough help with the fallout. Teens love acting like they can handle anything, but they’re still children, tousled by strands of adulthood, and the death of a parent or other adult role model can have a major impact on their development. “When attachments are lost or broken, especially in sudden or traumatic ways, our sense of security is threatened,” explains Alana Ofman, LCSW, Program Director at the Camden Center, a trauma and mental health treatment center for young adults. For teenagers already “struggling with the formation of a self separate and individuated from parents, the loss interrupts that process and puts it at risk.”
Here are a few tips for supporting a teen in your life after a death in the family.
- Show up. Don’t assume everything is fine simply because things appear to be fine. “Teens isolate themselves to deal with the confusion around loss,” Ofman explains. “Adults,” whether the surviving parent or a teacher, coach, relative, or neighbor, “need to reach in to make a connection.” And don’t think you can just hand down sage advice to “fix” their grief. This isn’t a broken toy. Instead, make it clear that you are available, which can yield powerful outcomes.“This can be as simple as asking to listen to music or watch something with them,” Ofman says “Move into their world.” Invite them to create a list of other adults and friends they trust and make a verbal contract that if they feel lonely or isolated they’ll reach out to you or to someone on that list.
- Have them write (or draw) it out. Get them a journal. If they don’t know what to write, suggest they simply jot down one thing they’ve done each day before going to bed. More feelings are likely to pour out. Grieving teen minds might conjure all sorts of self-punishing thoughts—such as that everyone thinks they’re damaged goods. Writing can help them process what they’re going through and realize what thoughts seem off base when put into words. Plus: it can be done anywhere.
- Find a peer support group. Locate a safe place, real or virtual, where teens can air their darkest feelings with others who understand—and who won’t gossip. Search for local groups online or call a nearby hospice agency and ask to speak with whoever handles their bereavement program. Camp Erin, a network of summer camps for grieving kids and teens, is also a great place for them to speak their minds.
- Normalize their feelings. You can love and rage at a person simultaneously. After all, people who die are fallible. When a loved one is lost, unresolved feelings may lead to guilt and shame. “If the teen is struggling with conflicting emotions, gently advise that a psychotherapist can help them sort through and disentangle confused thoughts and feelings,” says Tami Linde, a therapist whose own sister was fatally hit by a car at 16. “If they express interest, reach out to their parent, school counselor, principal, or anyone who can begin the process of finding help.” Of course, therapy can be beneficial regardless of whether conflicting emotions are at play.
- Don’t forget the firsts. Most kids grow up imagining their parents will be present to guide them throughout life. They’re grieving not just the immediate loss, but a lifetime of tiny losses every time they arrive at a rite of passage, such as learning to drive or getting hired for their first job. If you, or some other trusted adult, can fill that void with non-mortifying guidance on love, sex, and whether or not their prom dress is worthy of a fire emoji, step up. When these events roll around — or, better yet, in advance of their arrival — help them find a way to channel the person they long for. Ask what he or she would have said or done. Just listening to themselves say, “My dad would have said I’d look beautiful if I wore a potato sack,” might be exactly what they need to hear.
- Cut yourself some slack. If you’re close enough to help them through this, you may be in a thicket of grief, too. Remember that this doesn’t all have to happen right away—grief is a long game. Even if it takes your last cache of energy just to sit there as they watch a stream of mind-numbing YouTube videos, small gestures like that matter. Do your best with what you’ve got and know that for them, having one go-to person, mentor, or group who can help them manage the experience could be life-changing.
Jill Cohen, a NY-based family grief counselor, highly recommends the book You Are Not Alone by Lynne Hughes. Search for therapists in your area that specialize in working with teens and grief at Psychology Today.
Shoshana Berger is a writer and editorial director at IDEO. BJ Miller is a hospice and palliative medicine physician at the UCSF Helen Diller Family Comprehensive Cancer Center. Their book, A Beginner’s Guide to the End, is out July 16, 2019. You can download a free excerpt here.