Most parents will agree that the teen years can be some of the most trying and difficult years to parent. Even under the best circumstances, hormones, teenage drama and angst can strain even the best relationships.
Add to these naturally tumultuous years the death of a parent, and what might have simply been difficult can become overwhelming. If the parent committed suicide, then the challenges can be even more difficult and at times feel impossible to cope with.
If you have also lost a spouse, the task of helping your child cope becomes doubly hard as you grapple to come to terms with your own grief. Though it may seem like the darkest night with no end in sight, there are plenty of things you can do to help your teen cope and come to terms with the loss in a healthy way.
Help Them Understand the Stages of Grief
One of the first and most helpful things you can do for yourself and your teen is to understand that there are five basic stages of grief – denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance.
It is important to know that when grieving, all of these feelings and emotions are normal and part of the process of coping with loss. Denying or avoiding the feelings can not only delay the ability to accept the loss and move forward, but could potentially give way to secondary emotional issues that only serve to complicate what could be very choppy waters of grief.
It is also important to note that there is no set time frame by which the grief process must occur. Though the average time is about two years, it is not unusual for it to take three, four or even five years and longer. The focus should not be then, on the time it takes to work through the feelings, but rather, that they are allowed to take place.
Help Them Realize They Are Not Alone
When we are suffering or grieving, we sometimes feel we are alone in our pain and that no one understands. This can be particularly difficult for a teen who is likely already struggling with feelings of inadequacy, insecurity and wanting to fit in with their peers. If they also feel others do not suffer as they do or that they are better able to cope than they are, they may feel even more isolated.
While it may be true that certain personality types are able to roll with emotional punches better than others, it is also true that everyone faces loss sooner or later and will have to cope with feelings of grief. It is important that they know this.
It may also be helpful if you are able to share your own feelings of grief with your teen. If they know that you too are suffering and feel very much like them, it can not only help them feel less alone and isolated, but grieving the loss together can create a stronger bond between you and strengthen your relationship as you help each other cope.
Do Not Judge or Criticize
As teens work through their feelings there may be times when their emotions are very negative and perhaps even dark. It’s important to allow them to experience these feelings and emotions without the fear of being judged or criticized.
This may be particularly difficult if you happen to become the target for their negative emotions. Unfortunately, it is true that we often lash out at those who are closest to us. While it is certainly not fair, if you lash back at them, judge or criticize them, you run the risk of further alienating them, which only serves to deepen their feelings of betrayal and abandonment.
If you feel you are not able to provide a non judgmental, critical environment for your teen, seek the help of a friend, another family member, pastor or professional to give you a safe place to vent your negative emotions as well.
If They Shut You Out
Teens have a strong need for privacy during these years anyway. Double that if they are trying to come to terms with a loss. They may not want to talk to you or they simply may not understand their feelings well enough to be able to verbalize them to you.
While it is always good to reach out to your child and let them know you are there for them, respect the boundaries they may need or want to set. If they seek the comfort of another person or friend, do not take it personally. Reaching out to others outside of the family is normal and could serve in a positive way to help them process their feelings.
Provide Long Term Grief Counseling if Necessary
Grief counseling is invaluable for anyone who is experiencing loss and should probably be sought out right away. It can be expensive, but most insurance plans provide for it. If not, there are plenty of grief counselors available by way of city, state or county social services. Take the time and the effort to find the right person. It can prove to be an invaluable life line for both you and your teen.
Help Them Realize the Actions of the Parent are not Their Fault
It would be nice if we could simply state to our teen that the actions of their parent are not the result of a failing on their part. But, unfortunately, that is just not the case. Children often feel that the death of a parent, especially by suicide, is somehow connected to them and their worth.
If the relationship between the teen and the parent had been particularly difficult, strained or estranged before the suicide occurred, the chances of the teen blaming themselves or feeling that they have failed in some way are enormous.
Acceptance of another person’s behavior and understanding it is not your responsibility can be difficult – even for adults. So, it’s imperative that you help your teen understand they did nothing to cause the suicide and there was nothing they could have done to prevent it.
Send a Strong Message that says: I Will Not Abandon You.
Perhaps one of the more difficult things to do when helping your teen cope with the suicide of a parent, is to send the message to them that you too will not abandon them.
Since, with the exception of suicide, none of us can know the exact time of our death, your teen may have a very difficult time accepting this. But it’s very important they know you understand their fears and that you will do everything in your power to be there for them.
There is Hope
The legacy of suicide and the impact it has on your teen cannot be underestimated. It can take many years for them to come to terms with the suicide of a parent. .
Though you may feel powerless to help them at times, a consistent presence of love, affirmation and devotion can be the buoy that gives them the strength to bounce back.
Certainly, they will never forget nor be able to completely erase the pain of the loss, but, with your help and support, there is hope that life can become meaningful for them again.
University of Pennsylvania.edu
Wise Geek.com “What is Grief Counseling”
Belief.net “Grieving the Death of a Parent”
Center for Addiction and Mental Health