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Adolescent Grief and Life Change
Cynthia Waderlow, MSE, LCSW
This month the column is devoted to teens, and to the adults who are interested in aspects of the adolescent grief process.
You may have heard adults talking about how teens think they are “invincible,” meaning that there is the perception that young people may be willing to take risks because they believe nothing bad can really happen to them, that death is abstract and not really a part of their reality. It is actually quite normal for teens to hold death at bay, as this makes it much easier to stay focused on the intense physical, cognitive, emotional and social tasks of adolescent development. There are so many stressors and challenges at this age, so much focus on the near future: an outcome for this weekend, this summer, this semester, this boyfriend or girlfriend. But the death of someone close to you forces a confrontation with death - and this is grief. The grief can be a force that shapes your development in different ways, often in ways that find you more resilient, more of who you want to be.
When you look at your life, that of an adolescent, you know that the person you are becoming has been influenced a thousand times by your parents, your siblings, your friends. You take powerful messages from them into yourselves; their attitudes about challenges and views of life and the world. You also take reflections about how these influential friends and family members see you. You know when one of these individuals recognizes your talents or gifts. When someone says, “I want you to be looked at by the soccer scout,” or “I know you can make it to the regionals,” this is no small affirmation. When a friend says, “You really listen. I can be honest with you,” this is a more intimate reflection of how you stand out. You probably never forget receiving a reflection that shows this much positive regard for who you are. There are reflections you take in that are more subtle, but still meaningful: the way your younger sister counts on you for help with her math, the way your mom asks you for an opinion, the way your dad wants you to help him repair the deck. You also find ways to deal with negative and insensitive reflections, which, unfortunately, you may also absorb, and find your self-esteem is challenged.
On the other hand, you are more and more comfortable asserting your differences with friends and family members. You may observe disagreement to yourself, or speak out with determination. Differentiating yourself from significant others is part of your development. You are starting to see the mistakes and blind spots of those you are close to, and you are identifying ways to be different. Your individuation is a powerful process that expands your notion of “self” and moves you toward your goals. Individuation is a hallmark of development, and it continues to operate, with less intensity, after you are an adult.
So this powerful stage of life, adolescence, is shaped by your relationships. At times you will fit, at times you will push against, in the process of coming into yourself.
When one of these relationships ends in death, the loss reverberates to touch your life in every way. When you grieve the death of your friend or family member, your sense of “self” and the way you understand yourself in that relationship take on epic proportions. You find yourself intensely reviewing the smallest remembered details of the deceased person’s way of being and relating to you. If the person died by suicide, you will try to make sense of the death over time. You will try to reconcile the despair that led to the death with the larger than life person who had been engaged with life, just as you are. It is amazing to see how, with loyalty and love, it is possible to express anger and resentment, assert your differences or admit your own mistakes to the person whose death you are confronting. This is a process that allows you bring definition to who you are becoming. Grief becomes a story of life and relationship with new insights and understandings. It will always include the reflections and the points of differentiation that allowed you to know yourself in that relationship and to know the person who died.
As an adolescent, your grief process will look different from the grief of adults and children. It will be intermittent. You will find yourself picking it up and putting it down to attend to your own life tasks and activities. You may keep much of your grief to yourself, but there will be moments when a memory or a comment will fit with your situation, and it will feel good to say it. You will come to see that making some kind of grief response through music, writing, speaking, or an act of compassion for another universalizes your grief experience, joins you to others and contributes to healing.
Grief is a human experience that can be a powerful catalyst for personal development. From it, each grieving person can learn about their capacity for a range of human emotions and the power and influence of attachment. Grief is the beginning of healing after a significant loss. Grief is not an experience one would ask for, but when you, as a youth and emerging adult use your developing mental and spiritual capacity to take in an important loss, the process by which this takes place can move you toward growth and resilience. Because it is a transformational process, grieving a deep loss over time can be a vehicle for self-knowledge and understanding for the imperfections of those whom you are close.