When I was 14, my family was in a car crash. My dad was killed on impact.
Two weeks later I started high school.
As anyone who knows high school (let’s just ask most teens), it can be hard to be in high school just generally. Adding anything else that happens at home makes it well...harder.
I walked into high school expecting to feel and feeling completely misunderstood.
I didn’t think my peers had any idea of what I was going through. My teachers tried to help - though ultimately their goal is to make sure I passed.
As I’ve spoken across the U.S. about my memoir, In My Own Skin, from when I was a grieving teen, I’ve been asked almost any question about grief you might imagine. Why is grief so hard to talk about? What should I do to make this person feel better? Today, I want to address one that’s sits close to my heart: how can you help teens in grief?
I believe grief is a natural reaction to losing something you love. Mostly, conventional wisdom associates grief with death - and while I like to challenge that concept a bit - when you focus on the interaction with death, what happens over and over again is that being faced with death brings means facing your purpose. The reason why you are here and someone else is not.
This is one of the greatest gifts human mortality gives you.
But when it's the question on your mind and heart, it can feel overwhelming. Make you feel guilty or unworthy. Even drive you crazy trying to understand why things had to happen this way.
When I was 14, I had immeasurable skepticism that anyone could do anything that would help me.
Because most adults walked around with this feeling like they should know something because they were older than me, but few had actually gone through loss in the intimate and traumatic way that I was faced with.
So when they tried to help, it just ended up looking silly because I could list in a matter of seconds all the reasons why I'd already done or thought of the thing they said and why it didn't work for me.
After a while, I stopped bothering to even say that much. I just rolled my eyes and moved on.
Here's the thing.
Many teens have lives that are organized around rigid educational structures. Regardless of the country or state or even family specific choices around education, there’s a lot about how young people are brought into the world that involves learning. And often learning without explanation as to why it is done as it is.
Whatever the reason - the education system is too complicated to explain to kids, they wouldn’t understand why this is good for them, or maybe adults don’t even know why things are done the way they are - this leaves teens who have come face to face with death grappling with the deepest question of their humanity - Why? - and the majority of their waking time structured by places, people, and systems who most often respond to that question with a “because.”
In other words, the day to day experience of a teen is within a system that does not offer them a good reason for why they have to do what they are doing.
How do you like hearing “because” as an answer to why you have to do something day in and day out?
How do you feel when people kept asking you what would help when the majority of what you have to do is nonnegotiable and has no good reason (or at least no one has bothered to tell you one)?
It’s no wonder in situations like this that teens begin to withdraw from their environment, act out, get caught up in choices that challenge their parent’s, teacher’s, or guardian’s values.
That's how it was for me.
Most people figured they needed to tell me something, when they rarely took the time to stop and listen to what I was thinking and feeling.
What’s more, one of the most common "solutions" to grief (this goes for more than just teens) are support groups.
There's a lot about support groups and seeing others experience something similar to you that is very beneficial.
But when placed inside the context of a required school system, a teen grief support group basically just asks teens to come and talk about what they are feeling (ultimately so adults can know they are ok) and then go back into the same structure that is giving them no answers and isn’t addressing the fundamental question on their minds and hearts.
What does this do?
Build a deep sense of mistrust.
"Why do you want to hear my thoughts and feelings when you’re not going to do anything with them?"*
Alternatively, you could support teens in finding meaning making journeys. You could give teens experiences where they get to see how other people (a.k.a. adults) find meaning in their lives. How does any human being answer this question of why?
And it's ok to admit that you don't know.
You see, you don’t need to have an answer to life’s biggest questions to break down the walls of mistrust.
You don’t need to have it all figured out to be supportive.
In fact, being with your loved one in the middle of the confusion and hurt and mystery is support.
Whatever you're trying to do, you don't have to do it alone.
* At the time, I couldn't appreciate the ways in which my teachers did take into account my feelings. In other words, when you choose to help someone else you have to separate your intentions for helping from the impact of your actions, because you can't control how and when the someone you are trying to help will respond to your actions. Now I look back and think, "Thanks, Mrs. Lempke." :)
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