Teens need to know that their grieving process is normal

July 29, 2005|by LISA PREJEAN

The death of a friend or loved one is difficult to deal with at any age. The shock, the anger, the denial can be intense.

For teenagers who are just coming to grips with who they are and where they're going in life, those feelings often are intensified. Parents want to be a comfort but might feel at a loss for helping their children cope with the pain.

Marilyn E. Gootman remembers when her then-teenage daughter Elissa had a friend who died. Gootman talked with and listened to her daughter, trying to help her with the grief.

"I looked around for a book that would be reassuring and easy to read. At a time of grief, it is difficult to stay focused," Gootman says.


She found that most books on death and dying included information about teenagers but failed to speak to them.

This educator and mother of three decided to remedy that. The result is "When a Friend Dies: A Book for Teens About Grieving and Healing."

The book features insights from Gootman, from teens whose friends have died and from famous people who have spoken or written about death.

While teens experience grief just as people of any age experience grief, there are some differences that adults should keep in mind, Gootman says.

Teenagers are typically preoccupied with themselves, but even more so during a period of grief.

They need reassurance that people respond to grief in different ways. There's no one right way to grieve.

Some people can't eat. Some people eat all the time.

Sleep comes easy to some. It eludes others.

Teens need to know that their behavior is normal - even if it is different from how everyone else is responding.

Teens want to fit in and be just like their peers, but that desire might be difficult to fulfill when everyone is grieving in his or her own way. Encourage teens to embrace their differences and to realize that varied responses are the norm. They need to know that they won't always feel this bad. It takes time to heal, but the healing will come.

Adults should not be surprised by or overreact to a teen's anger expressed during a time of grief, Gootman says.

The anger might be directed toward the friend who died. It might be directed toward parents, adults or other authority figures. Or, it might be directed toward God.

It's important that adults help teens release that anger through constructive action.

Perhaps the teen would like to become involved in a campaign or make a scrapbook in honor of the friend. Channeling anger into action takes away some of the powerlessness that can be felt after someone dies.

Adults also need to provide a nonjudgmental ear whenever teens feel like talking.

"Encourage them to express their feelings," Gootman says. "Giving words to their feelings will help them process the situation."

If a teen seems reluctant to talk to someone in the family, ask if he'd like to speak with a counselor, therapist or member of the clergy. He might not feel comfortable sharing his feelings with his parents but might be OK with talking to someone he doesn't know well.

"Kids need a sounding board," Gootman says. "Don't take it personally if they can't talk with you."

Help teens stay active and involved socially.

"They worry that they're not being loyal to someone who dies if they go to a party," Gootman says.

Being sad all the time won't help the friend who died or the teen who misses him.

It's OK to see old friends and to make new ones.

In fact, new friends are a tribute to old friends.

"They taught you the value of friendship," Gootman says.

That's one thing a friend wouldn't want you to forget.

For more information on "When a Friend Dies: A Book for Teens About Grieving and Healing," go to on the Web.

Lisa Tedrick Prejean writes a weekly column for The Herald-Mail's Family page. Send e-mail to her at

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