When a teenager loses her father and shuts down


(Hadley Hooper/for The Washington Post)
November 28, 2011

QI’m quite concerned about my 14-year-old daughter. She was extremely close to her father, but he passed away in a motorcycle accident two months ago, and she seems to be in complete denial. Instead of showing any signs of grief, she goes out with her friends and bops along like nothing has happened. She hasn’t even cried.

If I try to talk to her about it, she basically puts up a wall between us and stares off into the far distance. If I show any signs of grief when she’s around, she walks out of the room.

She frequently stayed in her bedroom before the accident occurred — as teenagers often do — but now she spends much more time in there, and I’m worried about that as well.

My daughter doesn’t want to see a grief counselor — she says she’s just not comfortable with that idea — so how can I help her deal with her father’s death?

AYour daughter’s pain must be quite high, because she won’t talk about her loss or even cry in front of you, and this is deeply sad. It is also absolutely normal. And it would be just as normal if she talked constantly about her father, or wept at the mention of his name or went around being angry at the world and everyone in it. The expression of grief changes from child to child, according to their temperament, their personality, their age and their development. Even if your daughter had siblings, they would rarely express their grief the same way because the intensity of grief varies and so does the timing.

Although you can’t rush your daughter’s feelings or deny them or even interpret them with any degree of accuracy, you should push away your own grief for a little while each day, so you can be the patient, sympathetic listener that she needs. She has, after all, lost the first man she ever loved and like most survivors, she is probably berating herself because she didn’t apologize to her dad for snapping at him the day before he died; she didn’t say, “I love you,” one last time and worst of all, she didn’t have the chance to say goodbye. Without some kind of grief therapy, these regrets could gnaw at her psyche for years to come.

To help your daughter accept therapy sooner, you might invite her to see a sad movie so she can shed some tears and then tell you, and herself, that it was the ending that made her cry. Once the dam has broken, however, she may begin to tell you about her own grief, especially if you’re walking (or talking) in the dark. Children always confide more easily if they think no one will know whether they’re crying or not.

Your daughter also should hear you make a toast to her dad at the next family party. Tell her which foods he liked and didn’t like while you’re cooking supper, and how pretty he thought she looked when she went to her first boy-girl party. Casual comments will open the conversational door quicker than long, serious talks about her father.

You can scan the best pictures you have of your husband, especially the ones with your daughter, and then print them out on photo paper, put them in an album and give it to her for Christmas: a wordless reminder that, one way or another, her father will always be with her.

These small, simple gestures should help your daughter move out of the denial stage in a few months, and then she will be ready to join a child bereavement group, because a group of grieving children can probably help her better than weekly meetings with a therapist.

To find one, go to the National Alliance for Grieving Children at www.national
allianceforgrievingchildren.org
or to the venerable Children’s Room at www.childrensroom.org, or to the Rainbow Rooms at www.rainbows.org, which are in every state and in 18 countries, too.

Whatever the group, your daughter will learn that one out of seven American children lose a parent or a sibling before the age of 20, that she needn’t feel isolated or like a non-conformist after all, and that children who lost someone last year can help her just as she can help those who lost someone last month. The help she gets and the help she gives will lift the pall that grief has laid upon your daughter’s shoulders, and then the joy of life will come back, bit by bit. It won’t be the same as it was before, but life is full of tests, and the better she handles this one, the better she will handle the next one.

Questions? Send them to advice@margueritekelly.com.

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