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Supporting Your Grieving Teen
By Cyndi Williams, MSW, LCSW
RELATIONAL HEALTH FOR WIDOWS
Supporting your grieving teen can feel overwhelming, especially as you navigate your own grief. When supporting our teens in their grief, it’s important to remember that they are grieving a different relationship than you are, as well as different secondary losses. They’ve lost a parent and have been left with a parent who is shattered and unable to be the strong figure they were while navigating their own grief.
From the moment their parent died, they see that other adults constantly offer you hugs, ask how you’re doing, and offer you help while, in most cases, likely overlooking them. At my own husband’s funeral, my 16-year-old son was approached by a well-meaning adult man who told him “You’re the head of the household now and you’ll have to take care of your mom and younger siblings.” A family member asked me in front of him if he would plan to stay close to home for college now so he could help me with his siblings.
Although I know that both of the people who said these things were well-intentioned, I was furious and determined to protect my son as much as possible from these toxic messages. I had a conversation with him privately and told him that while I certainly would need his help more than I had before his father’s death, I was still the adult and I would never expect him to be responsible for me or his brother and sister at 16 years of age. I told him that I was committed to doing my best to make sure he could have as “normal” a teen life as his friends.
Teens are navigating often-difficult social lives, starting their first jobs, taking on the responsibility of being drivers, and planning for their futures. For teens who have lost a parent, it’s a time when the adults in their lives should be focused on supporting them in their dreams and launching into adulthood. But the reality is, some teens lose a parent at the time they need them most.
Your teen likely won’t have a lot of people asking how they’re doing, or have peers who can relate to their grief. Dr. Alan D. Wolfelt’s book Healing Your Grieving Heart for Teens: 100 Practical Ideas is a great resource offering teens simple information about their grief and how to navigate and understand it. Because some teens may throw the book aside and forget to ever access the help it may offer, you may choose to use the book as a guide for your own conversations with your teen. It will help you explain grief to them and companion them in healing from their grief.
Ask them how they are coping. Just listen. You don’t need to have all the answers. They need to know that what they’re feeling is normal, and that they will eventually heal. You’ve probably noticed as an adult that many other adults are not good with these conversations, so it’s likely that your teen’s friends feel more comfortable checking in with them, even if they aren’t personally able to relate to the grief. Encourage your friends and family who have close relationships with your teen to also check in with them.
Ask them about their dreams and plans. This is such an important time in their lives. They will not want to burden you with their life when they know you are sad or overwhelmed. Remember to tell them that even though you are overwhelmed right now you are still committed to helping them reach their goals.
Bring the helicopter in for a landing — no need to circle. You will be worried about them, and you will want more than ever for them to open up and share their feelings and spend time with you. But at this stage of development, it’s natural for them to begin pulling away emotionally and not wanting to spend as much one-on-one time with you, or wanting to be away from home with friends, work, and activities. Give them lots of space so they can continue to develop into healthy individuals. Focus on quality time over demanding lots of their time.
Be okay with “fine.” Just as you have difficulty finding words to express your grief, they will struggle to express their feelings, and you may hear a lot of “fine” when you ask how they’re doing. Try asking if they have someone to talk to when they’re feeling down, and offer to make an appointment with a therapist if they are interested in that. Ask them if there are any songs, TikToks, or movies that have made them sad or reminded them of their dad, and ask if they’ll play them for you and then discuss them together.
Share memories! Widows and widowers may repartner, and photos of their parent may begin to be put away in drawers, or memories of good times together may stop being shared. It’s important for you to advocate for your home to be a safe space for your teen to remember and talk about their parent. Talk to your teen before taking down any photos or making big changes around the house. I recently painted a table that had been in our home during my children’s childhood. My 17-year-old daughter, who was 8 when her father died, was more emotional than I would ever have expected. We talked about it, and she was surprised by her own emotional reaction to a change to something from the time she was a child and her dad was alive.
Be gentle with yourself and with your teen. This time in their life would be challenging in different ways for you both without the added burden of deep grief. Give grace, and ask for grace often. Admit that you often don’t know how to support them, but express that you are always in their corner and willing to help them in any way they need while you navigate these years together.
Widowed in 2013, Cyndi Williams is a mental health advisor and contributor for Modern Widows Club. She has more than a decade of experience supporting families navigating grief and loss. She currently works as a mental health therapist at Family Life Counseling in St. Louis, Missouri. Follow her on Facebook at @CyndiWilliamsLCSW.