Tears spilled gently from my eyes as I watched my 19-year-old daughter triumphantly cross the finish line of her first marathon. The emotions that whirled around in my head were so mixed: proud of her accomplishment but sad by what had prompted it and what it had come to mean.
Six months earlier my husband had been diagnosed with cancer, and as a surprise she signed up to run with the Livestrong Cancer Foundation team at the Shamrock Marathon in his honor. She raised more money than anyone on her team except for the CEO of the foundation and was the featured runner for the marathon’s publicity newsletter. Sadly, she was now running the race in her Dad’s memory instead of in his honor, as he had died a few weeks earlier. The experience was made even more poignant by the fact that he had run the same race thirty years earlier, and she clutched his time-stained winner’s patch as she sobbed past the finish line. She shared her story easily, feeling some comfort and relief in the telling.
Meanwhile, my 17-year-old daughter was plugging through the last semester of her senior year, trying to juggle high school challenges as well as deal with my husband’s diagnosis, and then six short months later, his death. Her calculus homework and student council president responsibilities were fulfilled as she compartmentalized her life into home and school. She resisted sharing her situation with teachers and even friends, convinced at least on some level that she should be able to handle it on her own and afraid that expressing her pain and vulnerability meant she was not in control. In a college scholarship interview, a judge innocently asked about her dad, and she froze, barely able to breathe. Maybe that was a turning point for her, but she gradually realized that death is not something any of us can handle alone.
These reactions of my own teenagers illustrate several points. First, grief is unique and individual, different for every one of us. There is no pattern, no timetable, no checklist of tasks to accomplish. Reactions vary: anger, despair, behavioral issues, indifference, emotional breakdown – all are possible even in the same person at different times. My family did not do grief perfectly – there is no such thing – but we did learn some lessons that might help others.
Here are my top suggestions to help your teen cope with grief.
Dealing with grief is tough at any age, but it can be especially difficult for a teenager. Teens are just starting to separate from their families and parents. They are dealing with the challenges of identity, fluctuating hormones, independence and peer pressure. You and your child will never forget the person you lost, but you will once again find joy and peace. Grief is a journey that everyone travels at some point in their lives. It never really ends, but it does get easier.
About the author: Colleen Arnold is a family physician, a widow, and a mother of three young adult daughters. She enjoys hanging out with family, writing, reading, and walking. You can read her blog at ColleenArnold.org.