The tragic deaths of Kobe Bryant and his 13 year old daughter along with the seven of their friends has brought up the issue of grief and especially the issue of children and teenagers grieving the death of a parent, sibling or close friend. Our society does not deal with grief in the first place. Therefore, when the person grieving is a child grieving the loss of a parent or sibling, we really do not know how to respond. Many people may decide to give the child privacy because they do not know what to say and it is easier. However, unless the child has asked for privacy, this is the wrong approach.
The death of a parent, sibling or close friend for a minor child or teenager violates how we expect life to occur. We expect kids to grow up, develop an adult life with loved ones and friends and also they will have a career. We assume people will die later in life such as 80 years old and people will lose their parents and sibling started around the age of 60. When it occurs at the age of 13 years old it violates all our assumptions about life. The 13 year old child must deal with something we assumed they would not have to face until they were 60 years old. We are in shock because our assumptions about life have been violated and we can’t imagine how the 13 year old can handle this tragedy.
The 13 year old must now figure out how they are going to continue living their life without the parent, sibling or close friend that they lost. This is a large part of grief learning to live your life without the loved one you lost. This is difficult for adults it is especially hard for a child or teenager. A fact we need to remember as the teen is grieving and as you are trying to help them and be supportive.
The first major point to remember is grief is not the same for everyone and there is no right or wrong way to grieve. There are stage theories about the grieving process. The main stage theory is by Kübler-Ross. This theory states there are five stages of grief. However, research has shown that grieving is an individual process and people experience different emotions depending on their process. Therefore, do not force a teen into the emotions you believe they should have as the grieve. Allow them to have whatever feelings they need to. In other words, if they don’t get angry or cry, it’s okay. They will have their own way of expressing the feelings they need to express. Allow them and support them in this process. Reassure them that whatever feelings they have or don’t have is normal and their is nothing wrong with them.
They are going to need to talk at times about the death. Be open and honest with them about the death. Hiding facts will not help them and cause more harm when they find out everyone was keeping a secret from them. Talk to them on their level using the terms they use. Try not to avoid the subject. If you avoid it, you send a message to the teen that they should avoid the topic too. This prevents the teen from coming to terms with the death.
Be prepared that children and teenagers will have a lot of different emotions regarding the loss. Therefore, expect mood swings and try to provide healthy ways for teenagers and children to express their feelings. Such as hitting a pillow for anger, writing a letter to the loved one to help with the feeling of missing the person who died. Also ask the teen if they have an idea on ways to express their feelings. Teenagers and children often have the best ideas. The main point is help them express their grief in a healthy manner rather than turning to drugs or alcohol.
As they are starting to express more emotions, this is a good time to bring up the idea of psychotherapy. Most people who experience a close personal loss can benefit from psychotherapy. Children and teenagers are no different. At first, the concept of therapy may be too soon. Remember to allow the child to go through the process at their pace. Often it helps to make a deal about psychotherapy. Ask the child or teenager to try a minimum of six sessions. After six sessions the need for therapy can be reassessed. If they are benefiting they continue, but if everyone feels they were doing just as well before they started therapy then they can stop. They can always resume therapy if needed.
Allow them to be involved in the funeral services. Many people feel a funeral is too much stress for a child or teenager having a difficult time accepting the death. The point of a funeral is a way to say good-bye to the loved one. I have worked with many children who were not allowed to plan or attend the funeral and they are usually mad that they didn’t get to say good-bye like everyone else. Remember to have some flexibility. Allow the child to participate in the part of the funeral services they want to participate in. If they do not want to go to the cemetery no problem. After the funeral mass have someone take them to where the reception is being held, while everyone else goes to the cemetery.
Finally, remember to be flexible with children and teenagers who are grieving. The grieving process takes at least a year. Therefore, there may be issues at school, with grades and mood swings. It will be a tough year for everyone. Especially birthdays and holidays during that first year. Therefore, you know it’s going to be difficult so don’t expect perfection. Allow the child time to continue grieving. If their grades fall for one year no big deal. This also may be another time to try therapy. If you remember everyone is hurting and everyone tries to work together, you will make it through this tragedy. It may not seem like it, but you will.
Dr. Michael Rubino is a psychotherapist who specializes in treating children and teenagers. He has over 20 years experience treating kids and does specialize in working with grieving teenagers. For more information about his work visit his website http://www.RubinoCounseling.com or visit his Facebook page at http://www.Facebook.com/drrubino3.