Helping a teenager deal with grief


(Hadley Hooper for The Washington Post)
July 24, 2013

Q. My 14-year-old granddaughter suddenly lost her dad 10 months ago, and she still feels the pain so deeply. Even now, she spends most of her time in her room, and I don’t think this is healthy.

She is coming to visit me for a few days, and I wonder if there is any way I can help her.
Although I know that I can keep her busy, I wonder whether I should try to talk to her, too. I lost my own mother when I was 7, so I know how much she’s hurting. But what should I say?

A. Sooner or later, grief twists the hearts of each of us, but it can tear a teenager apart. Children are supposed to pull away from their parents in adolescence, not have their parents be pulled away from them.

And then there are the questions — and the guilt — that have been left on your granddaughter’s emotional doorstep. Like every child who’s lost a parent, she is sure to be asking herself: Why didn’t I say “I love you” the last time I saw my dad? Could I have gotten help for him? Could I have saved his life?

And that most painful question of all: Will I ever see my father again?

As much as you want to help this child, you really can’t find these answers for her or even teach her how to grieve a little faster. You lost your mother when you were 7, but she’s 14 and children grieve differently at different ages and differently from adults, too.

You can, however, help your granddaughter work her way through it by talking about her father’s death in a straightforward way almost as soon as she arrives at your house. She needs to know that his death made you remember how you felt when your own mother died, and she can watch you make a memory box for your mom.

Your granddaughter will be intrigued when she sees you scribble a few memories on scraps of paper and put them in the box along with a few special snapshots of your mother, a stray piece of her jewelry, the garter she wore on her wedding day — whatever comes to mind. She may want to make a box for her dad, too. If she does, you can encourage her to add more memories from time to time and to go through the contents of the box whenever she needs a good cry.

If she doesn’t want to do that right away, she probably will do it after she hears you talk about some of the funny times you had with your mother and some of the stories you learned about her long after she had died. With luck, these recollections will invite your granddaughter to talk about her dad more easily than any direct questions you might ask.

If your granddaughter is still hiding out in her room, however, give her a diary and ask her to write something in it whenever she feels blue or lonely or is missing her father more than usual, because journaling is the treatment that so many psychiatrists encourage.

She also should join a bereavement group made up of other teens who are suffering from the fallout that comes with death or divorce, or see a psychotherapist who is known for his work with teens or grief (or both). She probably won’t need a prescription drug to get rid of her depression, because sorrow is an appropriate response to death.

Other outlets could blow away some of her blues, too. Exercise is one of the best: A new racket or a cute bathing suit might inspire your granddaughter to take up tennis or competitive swimming, which would give her a big workout and a chance to get rid of some of the anger that so often comes with grief.

Yoga is another helpful outlet because it nearly always soothes the soul, but she might like meditation better because the two of you could do it together, even on Skype. And if you’re at all religious, your granddaughter might feel more at peace if you take her to a service at a church or a temple, especially if you can light a candle for her father or remember him in some other tangible way.

To learn more about the way grief affects children of all ages, read “A Parent’s Guide to Raising Grieving Children” by Phyllis R. Silverman and Madelyn Kelly. (Full disclosure: Kelly is my daughter-in-law.)

Send questions about parenting to advice@margueritekelly.com.

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