My father died nearly six years ago of esophageal cancer, when I was 18 and in my first year of college. Looking back on that time, I feel as though it happened both yesterday and decades ago. Death acts as a supernova to memories; seconds stand crystal clear illumined while whole weeks are a blur. I’m so grateful that I am blessed with my mom and sister in my life. While we have all traveled our own individual grief journeys, I think that we have been invaluable fellow travelers, meeting on the road and warning about rocky passages ahead or sharing in warmth. Honoring the individuality of each of our relationships to my dad has allowed us to share in the commonalities of losing someone each of us loved dearly.
Children and teenagers deal with their grief and emotions differently than adults. This may seem odiously obvious when thinking of how teens confront contemporary issues – obsessing over objects of affection, hysteria over clothes, the desire to listen to the same song ten million times on family car trips – but is easy to forget when experiencing a child’s reaction to the death of a parent. Seemingly dismissive or facetious attitudes often conceal a deep well of emotion.
I know that during the time my father was ill and after he died, I compartmentalized my feelings a great deal as a coping strategy. A teenager’s head and heart are not always connected, and although I received straight A’s that first semester in college, I found it nearly impossible to cry in front of people. If I hadn’t possessed a cool exterior, it would have been impossible to carry on, to say goodbye to my Daddy after a weekend visit from college without ignoring the possibility this would be the last time I saw him. Perhaps because I seemed “fine” on the surface, extended family members were less inclined to offer the emotional support I so desperately needed, but didn’t know how to ask for.
An agreement to honor individual feelings is pivotal to weathering this difficult time. Family members cannot judge each other on who seems to be the saddest. Grief isn’t a contest, the only prize on the other side of the fog is survival, and any “new normal” will never exist if failure to thrive proves who loves the deceased the most. Offer support to bereaved family members as if they were actually coping far less well than they seem to be, because in private they probably are worse than you can imagine.
For those supporting grieving children, I think that the worst thing a surviving parent can do is invoke the deceased parent’s name to control the child. “If your mother was alive…” or “Your father would never allow…” Besides being manipulative, these words alter the relationship of the child with the parent who is gone, and can’t speak for him or herself.
Children are already missing one parent at every moment, if a parent can’t be present for every occasion, joyous and miserable, why only bring the memory into already fretful conversations? However on the other side of the coin, I’m always appreciative when people bring up my father in a positive way. At my younger sister’s college graduation I was touched when family members said how proud my dad would have been of her, because it affirms all of the wonderful ways he was a tremendous gift and influence on our lives, rather than solely focusing on his absence.
I’ve often heard that after a huge loss, those grieving should try to not make any big decisions or changes in their lives for at least a year. This is wonderful advice for adults, to not sell the house or run off to Vegas, but virtually impossible for teens or young adults. In the year following my father’s death I moved twice, stopped speaking to virtually all of my long-time best friends, and decided to transfer to a college across the country. While many of these changes were a natural part of becoming an adult, I wish that I had known then how much I was not really myself during that period.
People grieving should be given small business cards to act as an in-person answering machine, reading “I’m sorry, I’m not here right now, please come back in a year and I’ll try to be more pleasant,” more to remind oneself than to make excuses to other people. As normal as melodrama in relationships is to younger people, it is beyond even the most well-meaning friends’ comprehension the deep, enduring sadness that is grieving. We all know through receiving insensitive comments from the most mature adults that no one really understands until he or she has experienced a loss, but it would be tremendously helpful for a teacher, coach, or close family friend to explain to friends and classmates of a grieving child what has happened, and what a gift time and patience are.
Most importantly, remind the grieving child to be patient with him or herself, allow time to remember, and time to continue growing following a staggering loss. “Bereaved” originally meant “to be deprived,” and while we who have experienced a loss will always be deprived of our loved one, eventually the sense of being deprived of oneself will depart if we can first be compassionate with ourselves.