The day my dad was rushed to the hospital with a ruptured aortic aneurysm, I was 14 years old. I was in eighth grade. I got to see him before the surgery and the doctors said it was an “easy fix.”
That may have been the case for the average patient undergoing this procedure, but my dad had a heart attack while on the operating table. From that point, his organs failed and about eight hours later, his heart stopped for the second time. The hospital did not attempt to revive him on my mother’s directive and he died.
I remember finding out about his death as I was about to walk into his hospital room. I was engulfed with rage. A very savvy hospital social worker took me into the stairwell and let me stomp as hard as I could up and down the stairs. The aggressive activity wore me out and the loud echo it created sounded powerful, which I found oddly comforting.
Children deal with loss in a variety of ways, depending on their age and developmental stage. The manner in which they comprehend the loss, exhibit the symptoms of grief and find comfort varies greatly. Teens are able to cognitively comprehend the finality of a death and many of its practical effects in their lives. They are prone to anger, withdrawal, guilt, risk-taking behavior and a decline in academic performance. There can also be feelings of resentment and apathy and family members might see changes in their sleep or appetite patterns. These are normal reactions that need to be acknowledged openly and monitored.
The best way to help a teen who has experienced the loss of a loved one is by being available for honest, direct and open conversations about what they are going through. It is also important to normalize the feelings they may be experiencing. Giving the teen a voice in some decision-making regarding the funeral planning, future rituals to memorialize their loved one and some of the changes that will have to occur due to the loss is also helpful. Offering an artistic or concrete outlet to express themselves can also be constructive in some situations.
The memory book I made about my dad was one of the greatest comforts to me during my initial grieving process. Nearly 26 years later, it remains among my most cherished possessions. The key factor to understand is that each child will grieve differently. But if you are in doubt about how a teen in your life is dealing with loss, contact a grief counselor for a consultation.
Please feel free to contact me if you need additional resources.
Sherri Bickley, LMSW
Emotional Support Services Consultant
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