Coping with the Death of a Teenager
The death of my teen was, undoubtedly, the most difficult and painful experience that I have ever lived through. My life was shattered the moment I found out that my child had died. Nothing in the world could have prepared me for such a devastating loss. My child had grown into a special young adult and we were in the process of developing a friendship with one another. I felt robbed of the opportunity to get to know what the future would become.
My child had a world of discoveries ahead. There were so many experiences, laughs, smiles and joy to be had. I would like to have been able to share and build some of these new dreams and hopes. It has been a long and painful journey to come to a place of acceptance and at many points along the way, I did not think I would get here.
I needed to relearn how to live each day, even when I did not feel that I wanted to. Some days I felt that I had moved forward in my grief, and on other days I felt that there was little hope. I needed to learn how to be gentle with myself.
Remembering the early days after the death fills me with overwhelming feelings of sadness, loss and a sense of unfairness. If only I had had someone to confide in who had suffered a similar loss, who could have understood my pain, someone who could help me make sense of something that did not make sense at all.
As a newly bereaved parent you have experienced a most devastating life event. It is my hope that sharing my passage through grief will provide you with understanding, solace, and some insight into the multitude of feelings that you may have already begun to endure.
Your courage in taking the opportunity to read this information is a testament to your ability and internal strength to move forward in your journey through grief.
The Early Stages
When they told me that my child had died I felt as if my world had been frozen and I was filled with an overwhelming sense of shock, disbelief and denial. I felt that there must have been a “mistake”; this was a nightmare and someone would wake me. It was just too horrible to be real.
For the first time in your life, you may experience a multitude of feelings and emotions that you have not felt before. Shock, denial, anger, and panic among a host of other emotions that you may find difficult to put into words, are all natural emotions of grieving. You may experience all or a combination of these feelings through your grief and oftentimes feel that you are on an “emotional roller coaster”. Your emotions may be unpredictable – although you may feel “fine”, sometimes you will be able to mask the pain and “get through” daily life. Occasionally, you might feel overwhelmed by a flood of intense emotions that may be triggered by many different things that remind you of your child. The strength and unpredictable nature of your feelings may not only be frightening for you and your loved ones, but also very painful. At this early stage in your grief, it may seem that little that you do is able to take away the profound feelings of sadness and loss.
Many parents who have had a teenaged child die experience feelings of guilt, remorse and helplessness. As with many parents of teenagers, the relationship shared was loving yet sometimes there may have been conflict. It is important to recognize that questioning the past is a natural part of the grief journey. As parents, it is natural to expect that our children will outlive us. When a teenager dies, we search for answers to the “what if’s” and the “if only’s” that surround their death. As teenagers our children grow increasingly independent from us yet we continue to feel the parental bonds and the need to love and protect them. When this reality is shattered, we fundamentally change how we view the world around us.
The emotions of grief are an essential part of the healing process. By not blocking these feelings your passage through grief will begin.
Your Grief is Unique
Through my encounter with other parents who have had a teenage child die, I have learned that my feelings are natural yet unique to me. I allowed myself to feel the emotions that came naturally and I did not follow any path other than my own.
How one grieves is truly a unique journey based on our past experiences, including cultural and spiritual beliefs, our relationship with our teenage children and the world around us. There is no timetable or “right” way to grieve. As a bereaved parent, you have the right to think, feel and express your grief, and no one, regardless of their “good” intentions, has the right to minimize your feelings or tell you how you “should” be feeling.
The Grief Journey
Some days all I want to do is sleep and forget everything that happened. Other days I cannot sleep or eat or even begin to think about how to move forward in my life. Some days I make myself so busy that I do not have time to think and other days it takes every ounce of energy to start my day.
Many bereaved parents will state that grieving the death of a child is the most difficult mourning of all. Nothing makes any sense or fits anymore. The intensity of these emotions may affect how you feel physically and mentally. Fatigue, sleeplessness, loss of appetite or restlessness are all common reactions to grief.
You may go over events repeatedly in your head. Parenting a teenager is filled with challenges, and there may be unresolved issues between you and your child. For many parents of teenagers, this becomes an obstacle in their healing process. Try to focus on the good times spent together and understand that the challenges were a natural and healthy part of your child growing into adulthood.
Although there is no set answer for how you will experience feelings of grief, try to take each day one day at a time. Try to do one good thing for yourself each day that you found enjoyable and peaceful before your child died. Listen to your body and rest when you need to. Eat balanced meals. Lower your expectations and defenses for a while and rely on the support and help of others. Remove the word “should” from your vocabulary. Try to accept your limitations during this difficult moment in time. Only you know yourself well enough to do whatever you need to deal with the intense feelings of grief. Have confidence in yourself that, in time, you will return to the activities of daily living that you participated in before your teen’s death.
Friends and family have tried to be there for me but at times they would do or say things that would upset me further. I chose to ignore their “I think you should” comments and, in time, found those who provided me with the most comfort. I could simply be myself with them whether I was having a good day or not.
Your family and friends will try to comfort you in ways that you do not always choose. They may say and do things that you don’t agree with. Try to tell people what are your needs and wishes. These requests will let them know how they may help you in a specific way. The warmth and support of comforting friends and family is a precious gift. With such close supports you do not have to walk the grief journey alone.
Talking About my Teenage Child
My friends and family would rarely mention anything about my teen for fear of upsetting me. I eventually told them that it helped me to talk openly about my feelings and the life of my child. My teenager and I had shared a special bond and I, to this day, dearly miss our time together. My child was developing into a young adult and these memories bring not only tears from sadness but also tears from the joy that I received in our life together.
By relating memories and stories of your teen with others that listen in a caring and nonjudgmental manner, you are sharing your feelings. Not only might this be of benefit to you, but it also gives permission to those around you to discuss your teen’s life as well as their death.
Funerals and Rituals
My teen’s friends have asked if they could help organize part of the memorial service. I knew it would have meant so much to my child that their friends took part in this celebration of life. Their words, poems and songs touched my heart in a very special way.
The funeral ritual not only celebrates the life of your teenage child and acknowledges their passing, it may also allow you, your family, friends and classmates of your child, to gather and pay tribute to someone who was very dear and loved by all. The support and care that you receive may gently enable you to move through the initial stages of shock and disbelief into acknowledgment and acceptance.
Cherished Memories and Celebrating my Teenage Child’s Life
The bonds of friendship between teens during adolescence is extremely powerful and intense. When I was ready, I chose a special picture to give to my child’s friends, honouring their relationship and their loss.
In time you may decide to celebrate the life of your teen through writing a poem or book, planting a perennial garden or tree, building a bench overlooking a favorite place or helping others through their grief. The way you celebrate is your own special way of showing the love for your child. Your child’s friends will themselves also choose their own paths in remembering their very close friend. Reminders that belonged to your teen are items that, at the beginning of your grief journey, may be too painful to bear but in time you may want to keep. There is no time frame for grieving. When you are ready only you will know what you would like to do with these items. Having objects to touch, hold and smell is a lasting part of your special relationship with your teen. Many bereaved parents create memory boxes in which they keep their cherished belongings, keepsakes, and photos.
Holidays and Anniversaries
How will I ever be able to celebrate the holidays without my child? Everything about the holidays reminds me of my teen. It is such a special time for the family.
Holidays and special occasions are extremely difficult times for the bereaved. Your teenager may have been at an age where they actively participated in the festivities and had developed their own rituals. Dealing with these and past memories may open a floodgate of emotions. Remember to do what you feel is right for yourself. Let others know that the holidays are a difficult time for you. When loved ones ask you for commitments, suggest that you will join in the festivities if you feel that you are able to that day.
Making Sense of It All
I have learned not only to survive but also to accept that my life will not be the same as before my child’s death. I have learned to once again find pleasure in small comforts, to smile and to laugh. My friendships and family have become precious oases of comfort. Most importantly, my teen is always a part of me in my head and in my heart.
As a newly bereaved parent, your life has changed fundamentally. The person who coined the phrase “time heals” could not possibly have lived through the devastation of the death of a child. Time does not heal us, but it does allow us to redefine the magnitude of our loss and to move forward in our search to find meaning in something that does not make sense at all. Some questions that we may ask ourselves may never be answered.
It takes courage, inner strength and the love of family and friends and the special memories of your child to journey through grief and into healing.
The journey is truly your own.