By Scott Sager
A classmate of my daughter’s, a junior in high school, killed himself, his sudden and unexpected death sending waves of grief through his class, the school, the neighborhood and beyond.
Administrators reacted quickly, announcing the young man’s passing, providing counselors for the students to speak to, giving teachers guidance and training, holding a meeting for parents, and being attentive to the needs of the community.
A student’s death, whatever the cause, impacts everyone connected to the institution, and schools have become adept at responding to these crises. Most school systems have detailed response plans or use those developed by organizations such as the National Center for School Crisis and Bereavement, which also provides resources for parents.
The passing of a student, however, is only one cause for mourning among high school students. The death of a family member, a teacher, even a beloved pet, as well as divorce and other significant disruptions in a student’s life, can all bring on a grieving process.
“There are many ways to grieve and all of them are correct,” says Jon Kleinman, LCSW, a therapist and consultant trained in working with those who have experienced trauma. Teenagers, though, may approach bereavement uniquely. “Adolescents frequently respond to death very intensely. Developmentally, the adolescent is searching for explanations regarding all aspects of life, which includes death. Many ‘why’ questions are asked which often cannot be adequately answered by adults.” (“Coping with the Sudden Death of a Student,” Mississippi Bend Area Education Agency, Bettendorf, IA)
Parents play an important role in their student’s grieving process but that role will vary from family to family. “Every family does things differently,” Kleinman points out. “There are a million ways to handle these situations.”
Begin by remembering that “you know your kid better than anyone,” Kleinman suggests. Parents can use this knowledge to look for changes in their student’s behavior and relationships. Grief in teens can look like aggressive or acting-out behavior, particularly for boys who often haven’t been encouraged or developed ways to express emotions. Seemingly negative behaviors may be expressions of suffering and grief and it’s important that “we don’t pathologize the mourning process,” Kleinman emphasizes.
For parents, “its very unsettling when your kid isn’t doing well. Kids are going to be sad and we want to fix it,” Kleinman observes. Teenagers may not want to talk with parents, though, instead turning to classmates. Friendships can be very important and often students feel more comfortable with peers.
Dr. David J. Schonfeld and Marcia Quackenbush, in their booklet, “After a Loved One Dies — How Children Grieve and How Parents and Other Adults Can Support Them,” recommend that parents “encourage your children to continue their friendships with peers and the activities they enjoyed prior to the death. Even after the death of a family member, it’s important for children to keep being children.” They also point out that, “Children grieve in stages and over many years.”
Parents may find it difficult to be patient with their adolescent’s process. As Kleinman says, “When your kid feels bad, you feel bad. You just want them to be better.” Knowing when to seek help for your student is important. Look for changes in behaviors: loss of interest in school or activities, medicating their feelings with alcohol or drugs, or avoiding emotions through video games and withdrawing from friends and family.
If you seek help for your teen from a therapist or counselor, make it a collaborative process. “Both parents and kids need to like and trust a therapist and everyone needs to be clear about what their goals are,” Kleinman says. Some adolescents won’t be willing to participate in treatment but this doesn’t mean parents have no options.
One is to take care of yourself. Kleinman says, “You have to put on your oxygen mask before you can help your child.” In addition to your teen’s school, your church, synagogue or mosque, there are many resources locally and online. Parents may also choose to consult with a therapist for coaching on how to approach your teenager, or help working through your own feelings of grief.
As time passes, my daughter has returned to many of her routines and activities while keeping close to peers who share memories of their deceased friend. The schoolmates find ways to remember him and just take comfort in being together. I try to manage my desire to keep her closer or better supervised, recognizing the fears this boy’s death has stirred up in me. It will just take time — for all of us.
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