By Lane Pease, Program Director
Last week, Paris Jackson, Michael Jackson’s daughter, was rushed to the hospital in an apparent suicide attempt. An attorney for the family wrote, “Being a sensitive 15-year-old is difficult no matter who you are. It is especially difficult when you lose the person closest to you. Paris is physically fine and is getting appropriate medical attention. Please respect her privacy and the family’s privacy.” These words stood out to me as program director at Kate’s Club. The teenage years are already fraught with anxiety, change, and pressure and when you must also face the death of a loved-one, the emotions can be overwhelming. The loss could have occurred years earlier, yet during adolescence, they may revisit their grief. Some experts believe that children may not have the ability to process death fully until adolescence. My own daughter, whose father died when she was 4 years-old, has gone through a new period of processing her grief as an adolescent, as the missing piece became more relevant in her life.
Teens grieve differently than adults. Even though teens realize that death is permanent, their reaction may be different. They tend to have intense emotions for briefer periods than adults do, as they need to take a break or they become overwhelmed. The developmental task of separating from the family may be interrupted as the teen may regress or abruptly withdraw from the family.
Remember how as a teen, the last thing you wanted was to not fit in? Well, many times being the kid whose parent or sibling dies makes you different. Friends and teachers may not know how to support grieving teens. Many Kate’s Club’s teens say that their friends were ready for them to “get over it.” This lack of understanding increases feelings of isolation. Some teens experience a drop in grades, but I have also noticed the opposite as well. The teen will throw him or herself into school feeling that they must be the “perfect” child or because they wish to distract themselves from their grief.
We know teens that have experienced a loss may engage in high-risk behaviors as well. They feel they want to tempt fate and numb feelings. In some cases, their intense painful feelings can lead to self-harm. In other cases, teens may have suicidal thoughts. They may want to join their loved–one or just escape their pain.
How do you help grieving teens? Listen, and then listen some more. Adults have a tendency to jump in with judgment or advice before a teen has even finished speaking. Provide a safe place for them to express their feelings without judgment or lectures. Teens may not always want to talk to parents, but assuring there is someone they can talk to is important. Model “good grieving” by expressing sadness and sharing memories. Encourage creative outlets. These may include art, writing, photography, sports or other outlets. My daughter started doing yoga and found it very helpful. In addition, we know support groups work well for dealing with grief.
Finally, if a teen you know talks about suicide, take it seriously. Teens may say they wish that they were with their loved-one. While this is a normal feeling after a death, explore it with the teen to see if behind the feeling there of thoughts of acting on it. Reach out for help if there is any doubt.
Below are resources to help. Please feel free to contact Kate’s Club with any questions. Teens do not have to go through their grief experience alone.
1-800-273-Talk (8255) www.suicidepreventionlifeline.org
The Dougy Center www.Dougy.org