In general, adolescents do not know when they are experiencing grief. Nor do they have the innate skills to handle grief. Through my experience working with teens, I've found that many families do not discuss loss or grief; processing grief in a healthy way is often a foreign concept in many households regardless of income, race, etc. Many of the teens I meet with after assemblies are suppressing grief after the death of a parent, sibling, close friend or grandparent they relied on. They anxiously report losing interest in past hobbies and that friends’ conversations--once so interesting--now seem shallow. They don't comprehend that such reactions are common symptoms of natural grieving. Extreme loss disorients our world, makes everything else seem meaningless and trivial in light of the death of someone close and most dear. Teens also express to me feeling "wrong" about these unaccustomed feelings. They feel guilty for getting angry at parents who may also be grieving. They are filled with turmoil when they express anger toward friends who seem to act so naive and unaware of their grief-related angst. They often blame themselves and begin experiencing symptoms of depression. PARENTS CAN HELP OR HINDER Parents experiencing loss still need to function: maintain jobs and family, pay bills, etc. Many suppress their own grief in order to meet responsibilities, or because they, themselves have never learned to process grief in a healthy manner. Some try to get back to “normal” as quickly as possible as though nothing has happened, believing that acting as if all was right again will protect their children, even though the opposite it true. When their teen shows signs of “attitude” – anger, moping around, unresponsiveness, and rebelliousness – parents may criticize rather than respond to the underlying cause: which is legitimate, and often overwhelming, grief. COMPASSION AND NON-JUDGMENTAL TEACHERS CAN HELP Teens can greatly benefit by speaking with a compassionate, knowledgeable adult who understands how to help individuals effectively process grief. A teenager who is confused about the whirlwind of conflicting emotions needs to understand that the grieving process is often an uncomfortable jumble of anger, sadness and emptiness – off and on for a long time to come. Every birthday, holiday, and special life event may trigger feelings of grief. And it is during these moments we miss that person the most. Teens need to be encouraged to speak with their school counselor or psychologist on days when feelings related to their grief arise. Teachers can help by recognizing that grief: * is a powerful set of emotions that can overwhelm a teen (or anyone) to the point where they lose focus. * can cause an adolescent’s mind to shut down to protect it from too much emotional pain resurfacing. This can seriously interfere with a teen’s attention in class, ability to remember deadlines, keep commitments, etc. A very accomplished and reliable teen may suddenly appear distant or unfocused in class. If so, a teacher would be well advised to check with the counselor or family to see if there has been any major loss or stressor in the home. AN EXAMPLE OF THE POWERFUL IMPACT OF GRIEF ON A TEEN I experienced the powerful impact of grief on a teen from a 9th grader who came to speak with me after an assembly because she was very distressed about cutting on herself (self-harm). Upon questioning, she revealed that she began cutting about a year earlier. Prior to this, she had been a high-achiever and was actually still maintaining relatively high grades when we spoke. During our conversation she shared with me that her closest friend had died in a car accident and that she blamed herself for not being in the car to protect her. Her thought process, however irrational to us, seemed to make perfect sense to her. In turn, associated feelings of guilt were "pushing from the inside out", so much so that it was all just too painful for her to share with anyone, nor to live with. And so, she “cut on herself” to try to escape the tortuous feelings. As we created a safe, non-judgmental space for her to tell her story, her face, voice tone and attitude changed. She was so relieved that I didn’t tell her she was bad or wrong, and to be told she didn’t have the power to control what had happened to her friend; she was not responsible. And then she smiled a broad, peace-filled smile! I asked, "Do you feel like you have to cut anymore?" "NO.” she replied, “It’s not my fault. I can still love my friend even though she's gone, can’t I?” "Of course,” I replied. “You can write her letters and tell her your feelings. AND you can go ahead and live your life, laugh when you feel like it, enjoy living – your friend would want you to.” It is a remarkable feeling of satisfaction when a teacher, parent, counselor or other caring adult helps a teen regain their balance, self-esteem and hope – especially a grieving teen. Teens I've spoken with have regained lost hope and have exhibited a more accepting attitude once they were encouraged to express their emotions. Let us all be there when a teen in grief needs a compassionate ear. It is uplifting to see the rapid change in a teen’s facial expressions, voice tone and attitude when they grasp that their feelings are neither "wrong" nor "bad," merely a realistic part of the grieving process.
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