BY DEBBIE PAGE
According to the American Hospice Foundation’s Helen Fitzgerald, teens grieve deeply but sometimes hide their feelings. “Fearing the vulnerability that comes with expression, they look for distractions rather than stay with the grief process long enough to find real relief.”
“Feelings can be turned off quickly, much like flipping a light switch. Teens can act as if nothing has happened while they are breaking up inside. You may observe teens who take on the role of caregiver to family members or friends, in effect denying their own grief.”
“Young men of this age may have a particularly hard time when they have been taught that showing emotion is something that girls do – but macho guys don’t.”
Teens can keep a grief journal to record and date symptoms, document their most private feelings, and track how they are feeling over time.
If teens are feeling any of the symptoms below, they should tell their parents or school counselors to get immediate help:
♦ Experiencing recurring nightmares, flashbacks and hallucinations,
♦ Feelings of intense anxiety
♦ Avoidance of any feelings or thoughts concerning the tragedy or any activities or situations remind them of the tragedy
♦ Preoccupation with the tragedy many months after it occurred
♦ Lack of recall or blank spots in their memory.
♦ A significant decrease in interest in normal activities, either at home or at school
♦ Depression combined with increased feelings of sadness, loneliness and hopelessness
♦ Detachment and withdrawal from friends and family.
♦ Feelings of “survivor guilt”
♦ Taking chances and doing some self-destructive or self-defeating behavior
♦ Inability to experience emotions, to feel happy or to love someone
♦ Avoiding close relationships for fear of being left alone again
♦ Being overwhelmed with emotions (tense, angry, scared and out of control)
♦ Feeling like they have no future, are unable to date, to marry or have a career
♦ Problems with increased use of alcohol or drugs
♦ New problems in falling or staying asleep or sleeping too much
♦ Irritability or outbursts of anger directed at family, friends, or teachers
♦ Difficulty in concentrating on things they usually enjoy such as reading or listening to music
♦ Physical symptoms, such as cold sweat, rapid heartbeat, or shortness of breath when reminded of the tragedy
If recurring recollections of the death/trauma are continuing to disrupt the teen’s home life, school or leisure time for weeks after the loss, the teen needs help to work through grief.
Teens should ask for help and guidance to find people with whom to talk. Sharing how they feel may help them feel better. If they hide their feelings, these emotions may come back at a later time to burden them.
Fitzgerald advises that since teens are often more willing listen to other teens, trained peer counselors can help establish communication with their distressed friends and help steer them to professional help if needed.
Another approach is through grief support groups. “By sharing feelings with one another, teens find out they are not alone and that others are also struggling to rebuild shattered lives. Grief groups help teens feel understood, accepted and supported.”
Here are some things Fitzgerald says that teens can do to help themselves:
♦ Talk about the event as much as possible and urge friends to do the same. Ask a counselor to set up informal talk groups. Every time teens talk about the loss, it loses some power and hold on them.
♦ Have patience; healing may take a long time.
♦ Learn to meditate, listen to music, take walks, or visit a peaceful place such as a park, church, or library.
♦ Take care of physical needs. Eat healthy foods, exercise, and rest.
♦ Stay involved with family, friends and school. Keep up a regular schedule and stick to routines.
♦ Have patience with parents. Time will help them relax control.
HOW PARENTS CAN HELP
Adults need to be good, nonjudgmental listeners as teens grieve, advised Fitzgerald, showing interest in them and their views, ideas, and thoughts. “Support their ideas or gently introduce new ways to approach their ideas. Acknowledge their grief and offer your thoughts of how to ease their pain.”
Parents can also encourage friends, family, and schoolmates to find comfort in creating some type of memorial for the person who died.
Parents can help their children through grief in a number of ways. They can tell their kids that feelings of sadness, anger, guilt, fear, depression, and worry are normal when working through the stages of grief.
If reactions are more extreme or lasting longer than they should, parents need to consult a professional to offer the child loving support if confusing and debilitating feelings return.
The National Alliance for Grieving Children (childgrieve.org) notes that teens’ awareness and understanding of death is similar to that of adults. Support teens in understanding that grief is a combination of reactions, including thoughts about the person, feelings like sadness or anger, and physical reactions such as tiredness or an upset stomach.
They can also experience more subtle recurring emotions of regret, ambivalence, or relief.
Teens’ anger may not be because an important person has died but because they feel no one listens or talks to them or has eliminated them from activities. Don’t assume what prompts angry feelings; parents should ask why they are angry.
Parents need to be available to listen and talk. They can encourage involvement in positive family activities as a safe, caring place for teens.
Parents can also offer specific opportunities for expression of grief and emotions through writing, art, music, or sports.
Parents should stay aware of the intensity of teens’ grief experience and expected mood swings. Allow them to have some hidden feelings unless parents sense a risk of self-harm from their emotional confusion.
LOCAL GRIEF SUPPORT FOR CHILDREN AND TEENS
For local support and resources for children and teens during times of grief, contact Hospice of Iredell County for Rainbow Kidz resources at http://www.hoic.org/rainbow_kidz_showcase.asp.
Rainbow Kidz provides weekly in-school grief support groups for students who have experienced loss in Iredell-Statesville and Mooresville Graded School District as well as private and charter schools throughout the county.