A compassionate resource for friends, parents, relatives, teachers, volunteers, and caregivers, this series offers suggestions to help the grieving cope with the loss of a loved one. Often people do not know what to sayor what not to sayto someone they know who is mourning; this series teaches that the most important thing a person can do is listen, have compassion, be there for support, and do something helpful. This volume addresses what to expect from grieving young people, and how to provide safe outlets for teens to express emotion. Included in each book are tested, sensitive ideas for “carpe diem” actions that people can take right this minutewhile still remaining supportive and honoring the mourner’s loss.
About the Author
Alan D. Wolfelt, PhD, is an internationally known teacher, a grief counselor, and the author of The Journey Through Grief and The Understanding Your Grief Journal. He is director of the Center for Loss and Life Transition and faculty member at the University of Colorado Medical School’s department of family medicine. He is the “Children and Grief” columnist for Bereavement magazine and has appeared on The Oprah Winfrey Show, Larry King Live, and NBC’s Today. He lives in Fort Collins, Colorado.
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Healing a Teen's Grieving Heart
100 Practical Ideas for Families Friends & Caregivers
By Alan D. Wolfelt
Center for Loss and Life TransitionCopyright © 2001 Alan D. Wolfelt, Ph.D.
All rights reserved.
Understand the difference between grief and mourning.
Grief is the constellation of internal thoughts and feelings we have when someone loved dies. Mourning is the outward expression of our grief.
All teens grieve when someone loved dies. But if they are to reconcile the loss, they must have a safe, accepting atmosphere in which they can mourn.
Often teenagers don't want to mourn because mourning makes them feel vulnerable and dependent. And feeling vulnerable and dependent runs counter to their natural need to separate from parents and other authority figures.
Grieving teens need permission to mourn. Sometimes what they need most from adults is an awareness that it is OK to feel the many emotions they feel and to talk or not talk about those emotions.
When you were a teenager, did someone you love die? If so, did you mourn the death or did you just grieve, bottling up your feelings inside?
Make a "contact pact" with yourself.
Commit to contacting the teen once a week or once a month.
Vary your means and time of contact so the teen won't feel she's just an item on your "to do" list.
Your contact needn't take a lot of time; a brief phone call or a short note are enough to demonstrate your support. Many teens appreciate doing instead of talking. Take her to a movie or out for pizza.
Don't neglect the teen as time passes; mourners of all ages need support long after the event of the death.
Get our your daily planner right now and pencil in days on which you will, without fail, get in touch with the teen. Plan out an entire year.
UNDERSTAND THE SIX NEEDS OF MOURNING
Need 1. Acknowledge the reality of the death.
To move toward reconciliation, teenagers must, over time and with the gentle understanding of those around them, openly acknowledge that someone they love has died and will not return.
Don't expect young people to acknowledge the reality and finality of the death in the same way adults do. Some teens, especially younger ones, will embrace the reality slowly and may even seem indifferent at times. A full sense of loss does not typically come about until several months after the death and may not occur until much later.
As you talk with and listen to the teen, be honest about the nature and cause of the death — even if the death was violent or self-inflicted. Teens can cope with what they know; they cannot cope with what they don't know.
Today, talk about the physical reality of the death. Don't assume that just because he's a teenager he really understands from a medical standpoint what cancer or a heart attack or an aneurysm is. Make sure he understands how and why the person died.
UNDERSTAND THE SIX NEEDS OF MOURNING
Need 2. Move toward the pain of the loss.
Another important need for teens is to embrace the pain of the loss. This need involves encouraging the young person to embrace all the thoughts and feelings that result from the death.
Like the need to acknowledge the reality of the death, this need is often quashed by adults who want to protect young people from pain. Yet, as Helen Keller said years ago, "The only way to get to the other side is to go through the door."
Keep in mind that the teen's naturally strong resistance to mourning does not mean the teen isn't hurting inside or isn't capable of mourning with support and understanding.
Also remember that because teens don't articulate their feelings well, they often do as much if not more of their mourning through behaviors rather than words.
Do something physical with the teen — shoot hoops or go for a hike or rollerblade. After the two of you had have some "warm up" time together, ask him how he's feeling about the death.
UNDERSTAND THE SIX NEEDS OF MOURNING
Need 3. Remember the person who died.
My experience with grieving young people has taught me that remembering the past makes hoping for the future possible.
The process of beginning to embrace memories often begins with the funeral, which offers an opportunity to remember the person who died and affirm the value of the life that was lived.
As you reach out to the teen, be alert for creative and spontaneous ways to remember the person who died. Flip through photo albums, tell stories. Journal writing can be particularly helpful for adolescents who may not be ready yet to talk openly about their memories.
Keep in mind that remembering can be difficult for teens. Some memories are painful, even frightening. But many are joyful and allow the teen to relive the happy times.
Invite the teen to share a memory of the person who died. Be specific. Ask, "What about that time you and Jill went to soccer camp together?" or "What did your mom used to cook for the holidays?"
UNDERSTAND THE SIX NEEDS OF MOURNING
Need 4: Develop a new self-identity.
As social beings, we think of ourselves in relation to the people we care about. I'm not just Alan Wolfelt but a son, a brother, a husband, a father. When my father died last year, I was suddenly fatherless.
Teenagers may be even more closely linked to those around them because their self-identities are just emerging.
The death of a family member may also require young people to take on roles that had been filled by the person who died. If younger brother Brian always took out the garbage and then he dies, someone still has to take out the garbage. Taking on the new role can be very difficult for the teen survivor.
No one can "fill in" for the person who died. Don't try to find a substitute father/best friend/grandparent/etc. for the teen, at least not in the early months after the death. Support relationships, yes. Replacements, no!
Write the teen a note that both honors his old identity and demonstrates allegiance to his new one. For example: "You are a wonderful son and gave your father great joy. You continue to be a unique and special person who means so very much to me and many others."
UNDERSTAND THE SIX NEEDS OF MOURNING
Need 5: Search for meaning.
When someone loved dies, we naturally question the meaning and purpose of life.
Grieving young people may ask "How ?" and "Why?" questions about the death of the person they loved. "How did it happen?" or "Why did this happen?" You can help by letting the grieving teen know that these kinds of questions are both normal and important.
Don't try to answer all the teen's questions about the meaning of life and death. It's OK — even desirable — to admit that you struggle with the same issues and that nobody knows all the answers.
Teens sometimes act out their search for meaning. Drunk driving and other behaviors that test their mortality are all too common among grieving teens. While in general you shouldn't judge the ways in which the grieving young person searches for meaning, life-threatening behaviors obviously require intervention.
Ask the teen what she thinks happens after death. Share your beliefs about life and death and spirituality with her without pressuring her to believe what you believe.
UNDERSTAND THE SIX NEEDS OF MOURNING
Need 6: Continue to receive support from adults.
The last and perhaps most important mourning need for teens is to receive ongoing support from adults.
Grief is a process, not an event, and grieving young people will continue to need your support for weeks, months and years after the death and the funeral.
Unfortunately, our society places too much value on "carrying on" and "doing well" after a death. So, many mourners are abandoned by their friends and family soon after the death.
As they grow and mature developmentally, teens will naturally grieve the death on new and ever deeper levels. I call this "catch-up mourning" (see Idea 9). If you can help the grieving teen mourn as the need arises (even years after the death), you will be helping him grow into a well-adjusted, loving adult.
Stop for a moment and think: When did the teen's loved one die? Has your support for him waned since the funeral? Has your contact been less and less frequent? Commit right now to contacting or spending time with the teen every week this year.
Know that grief does not proceed in orderly, predictable "stages."
Though the "Needs of Mourning" (Ideas 3-8) are numbered 1-6, grief is not an orderly progression towards healing. Don't fall into the trap of thinking that the teen's grief journey will be predictable or always forward-moving.
Usually, grief hurts more before it hurts less.
The teen will probably encounter a multitude of different emotions in a wave-like fashion. He will also likely encounter more than one need of mourning at the same time.
Teens often do "catch-up" mourning at developmental milestones. Important events like prom or high school graduation — even when they take place years after the death — may cause the grieving teen to feel particularly sad because the person who died isn't there to share the moment. Many grieving teens will continue to do catch-up mourning as they enter adulthood and reach other milestones like marrying or having children.
Review the Needs of Mourning (Ideas 3-8). Which one seems most prominent right now in the teen's grief journey? Think of ways you can help the teen work on this need.
DON'T expect the teen to mourn or heal in a certain way or in a certain time.
The teen's unique grief journey will be shaped by many factors, including:
* - the nature of the relationship he had with the person who died.
* - the age of the person who died.
* - the circumstances of the death.
* - his unique personality.
* - his cultural background.
* - his religious or spiritual beliefs.
* - his gender.
* - his support systems.
Because of these and other factors, no two deaths are ever mourned in precisely the same way.
Don't have rigid expectations for the teen's thoughts, feelings and behaviors. Instead, think of your role as one who "walks with," not behind or in front of, the teen.
Next time you're with the teen, remember to use the "teach me" principle of learning about her grief. If you listen, she will likely teach you about the various influences listed above.
Consider the teen's relationship to the person who died.
Each teen's response to a death depends largely upon the relationship he had with the person who died.
For example, teens will naturally grieve differently the deaths of a parent, a classmate and a grandparent.
The closer the teen felt to the person who died, the more difficult his grief is likely to be. Ambivalent or conflicted relationships can also complicate grief.
One good way I've found to encourage the teen to teach you about his relationship with the person who died is to ask him to show you photos of the person who died. Relationship themes naturally emerge as the teen describes what's going on in the photos. (Also see Idea 37.)
Think about the teen's relationship with the person who died — from his point of view. Set aside your own thoughts and feelings and enter into his world as you consider this point.
If a teen's parent has died, consider this:
The parent-child bond may be the strongest and most significant in life. When this bond is severed by death, the grieving teen needs ample love and support from the other adults in her life.
Perhaps the most important influence on the teen's grief journey will be the response of the surviving parent or other important adults in the teen's life. While they cannot ignore their own grief and mourning, they must focus as much as possible on helping the teen mourn.
For the teen, the loss of a parent often results in many additional losses, such as loss of financial stability or loss of a home and neighborhood friends if the family has to move.
When a teen's parent dies, take care not to send in same-gender "substitutes" right away. Teens are especially resistant to new parent figures. Instead, consider soliciting the help of adults of the opposite gender of the parent who died.
If a teen's sibling has died, consider this:
Next to the death of a parent, the death of a sibling can be the most traumatic event in a teen's life. Grieving siblings often feel:
* - Guilt. "I wished for John to go away forever and he died" is a common thought among teens who haven't been given the concrete details of the sibling's death and who haven't been assured that they were not at fault.
* - Fear. When a teen's brother or sister dies, another young person has died. So, confronting this reality can mean confronting the possibility of one's own death.
* - Confusion. One 13-year-old girl I counseled after the death of her brother asked me, "Am I still a big sister?" This young person was obviously struggling with the confusing task of redefining herself.
Excerpted from Healing a Teen's Grieving Heart by Alan D. Wolfelt. Copyright © 2001 Alan D. Wolfelt, Ph.D.. Excerpted by permission of Center for Loss and Life Transition.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Table of Contents
ContentsAlso by Alan Wolfelt:,
1. - Understand the difference between grief and mourning.,
2. - Make a "contact pact" with yourself.,
3. - UNDERSTAND THE SIX NEEDS OF MOURNING,
4. - UNDERSTAND THE SIX NEEDS OF MOURNING,
5. - UNDERSTAND THE SIX NEEDS OF MOURNING,
6. - UNDERSTAND THE SIX NEEDS OF MOURNING,
7. - UNDERSTAND THE SIX NEEDS OF MOURNING,
8. - UNDERSTAND THE SIX NEEDS OF MOURNING,
9. - Know that grief does not proceed in orderly, predictable "stages.",
10. - DON'T expect the teen to mourn or heal in a certain way or in a certain time.,
11. - Consider the teen's relationship to the person who died.,
12. - If a teen's parent has died, consider this:,
13. - If a teen's sibling has died, consider this:,
14. - Don't expect the teen to take on the role of a parent or sibling who died.,
15. - If a teen's grandparent has died, consider this:,
16. - If a teen's friend has died, consider this:,
17. - Acknowledge grief stemming from the loss of a pet.,
18. - Consider the nature of the death.,
19. - If the death was violent, consider this:,
20. - Think about the teen's cultural or ethnic background.,
21. - Talk about death.,
22. - Establish trust and confidentiality. Then honor it.,
23. - Listen without judging.,
24. - Respect the teen's wish not to talk about the death.,
25. - Pay attention to your nonverbal communication.,
26. - DON'T fall back on clichés.,
27. - DON'T use religious clichés, either.,
28. - Do say this.,
29. - Use the name of the person who died.,
30. - Call the teen.,
31. - Write a letter.,
32. - Attend the funeral.,
33. - Have the teen write an epitaph for the person who died.,
34. - Help the teen choose a keepsake.,
35. - Give the teen permission to find comfort in "linking objects.",
36. - Allow the teen to cry.,
37. - Ask to see photos.,
38. - Mourn together.,
39. - Be compassionate.,
40. - Be genuine.,
41. - Be the teen's advocate.,
42. - Let the teen be a teen.,
43. - Offer help from the community.,
44. - Inquire about support groups.,
45. - Galvanize the teen's support network.,
46. - Ease the teen's relationships with her peers.,
47. - Help the teen's family mourn.,
48. - Visit the grave or scattering site together.,
49. - Visit a pet store.,
50. - Spend time with younger kids.,
51. - Contemplate the universe.,
52. - Talk with the teen about heaven.,
53. - Get cultured.,
54. - Tickle a funny bone.,
55. - Treat the teen to a neck and shoulder massage.,
56. - Play a game.,
57. - Light the night.,
58. - Move to the music.,
59. - Offer to pick up homework assignments.,
60. - Do a project together.,
61. - Teach the teen something new.,
62. - Make a collage together.,
63. - Finger-paint.,
64. - Exercise together.,
65. - Imagine what the person who died would do or say.,
66. - Ask about a parting gift.,
67. - Ask a favor.,
68. - Volunteer with the teen.,
69. - Reaffirm life.,
70. - Break bread; share fruit.,
71. - Bring a meal over, or take the teen out to eat.,
72. - Cook something together.,
73. - Go bowling.,
74. - Go surfing.,
75. - Go someplace peaceful.,
76. - Go buy the book.,
77. - Give a calling card.,
78. - Give a candle.,
79. - Give a dream catcher.,
80. - Give a memory journal.,
81. - Give a memory box.,
82. - Give a sleep basket.,
83. - Stop by.,
84. - Turn feelings into something tangible.,
85. - Suggest safe ways for a teen boy to release his anger.,
86. - Suggest safe ways for a teen girl to release her anger.,
87. - Be on the look-out for "red flag" behaviors.,
88. - Take a risk with the teen.,
89. - Take a walk together.,
90. - Take care.,
91. - Donate a day to the teen.,
92. - Focus on the day's happy moments.,
93. - Remember: One day at a time.,
94. - Be mindful of anniversaries.,
95. - Don't be caught off guard by "griefbursts.",
96. - Leave the teen alone.,
97. - Educate others about the needs of grieving teens.,
98. - Follow up and follow through.,
99. - Understand that teens don't "get over" grief.,
100. - Believe in the teen's capacity to heal.,
A Final Word,
Send us your ideas for Healing A Teen's Grieving Heart!,
ALSO BY ALAN WOLFELT,