They say it’s the mother (or father) of all losses. Nothing can truly prepare you for it, no matter your age. But when you’re a teen and your parent dies, it can be very disruptive to an otherwise normal process.
In adolescence – that sweet spot between childhood and adulthood – one of the things you naturally do is separate yourself from your parents.
You want to explore your own interests, spend time with your friends, figure out what you believe about life, and make your own decisions. It’s part of human development to want independence and to rely less on your parents!
At the same time, parents are usually loosening the reins and giving you space in order to help you transition from the kid they’ve known into the adult you’ll be become.
If a parent dies, you are forced to do without them instead of slowly separating as you become an adult.
If you’ve been in conflict with your parent, which is also totally normal in adolescence, you likely have things left unsaid or undone.
Those “what ifs” and even regrets are all part of grief. It is important to know what normal grief looks like so that you can learn to live in a new way.
Disclaimer: We recognize not everyone has a healthy parent relationship. It’s natural to grieve whether or not you had a close bond with the parent who died.
So, what is “normal grief” for a teenager? There are four big things we tend to see in therapy:
- Under Construction. The teen years are all about building, much like a construction project, but when you lose a parent, it can change the whole plan. The solid foundation your parent may have built for you can shatter. If you had an unhealthy or abusive parent relationship, it can feel devastating not to ever get that chance. You might feel like you aren’t sure where to start. Grief becomes part of the (re) building process.
- Intense Emotions. Grief is a very complex process that is hard to control. Most teens feel confused and lost when their parent dies. It is common to have symptoms of depression, anxiety, hopelessness, and lots of crying. Anger is a very normal part of the grieving process as is disappointment. Parent loss can lead to uncertainty about who you are without your parent, and many grieving teens struggle with self esteem. It’s common to cycle through emotions, and they generally become less intense over time.
- Isolation. Death is hard, and we don’t always do a very good job of talking about it “in public”. Adults can be some of the worst offenders. Some will believe you don’t want or need to talk to an adult about it. Others may try to keep your time together lighthearted since they assume you’re sad the rest of the time or need a “break” from your grief. Unless they have experienced grief themselves, some of your friends are likely so uncomfortable with the idea of death that they avoid it altogether and never bring it up. All of that can lead you to feel alone.
- Academic Ups and Downs. It can be hard to focus on school work when you’re grieving. Afterall, you don’t get to choose when you are or aren’t grieving. If your parent had been really involved with your school, you might not yet know how to keep on top of your work on your own. Other teens pour themselves into school work as a distraction and actually perform better in school than before their parent died. Whatever it is for you, maintaining structure in your life by at least getting to school each day and interacting with peers will help in the long run.
While all normal, none of those things is easy. With support and understanding, you will learn how to function with the new normal in your life.
Peer support groups can be very helpful as can talking about it with a school counselor, clergy person, family member, or therapist.
Grief takes a winding course and it changes over time, just like being a teen, so the most important thing is to try and recognize when you’re grieving and be gentle with yourself.
Ask for what you need from others. While no one can replace your parent, you don’t have to do it alone.
What have you found to be helpful on your healing journey?
Blog written by therapist Sarah Souder-Johnson, MEd, LPCC