Helping your Teen Cope with Death: Losing their Best Friend by Sudden Death
Consider Your Teen’s Coping Style: Children cope with death in various ways. You may be able to identify their experience of grief by observing their expressed sad mood. For others it can be quite difficult to pin point their level of grief. What may appear to be typical behaviors and moods may actually be insidious symptoms of depression and grieving. Lets take a child who engulfs themselves in their school work, sports, or other activities after the loss of their friend. From the outside looking in it may appear that they are more driven to complete theses tasks; however, internally their behaviors may potentially be a coping response. Although their actions show more resiliency than sadness and grief this shift in a teen’s behavior, after the death of a friend, is the process that will determine how they will cope with the loss. Continue reading to find out more ways in which teens grieve and ways in which you can be helping your teen cope with death.
Developmental factors to consider in helping your teen cope with death: Death can throw a curb ball in your teens sense of self. During your child’s teenage years, they start to learn more about themselves through personal explorations, but yet not how death relates to them and those around them. As they go through their personal explorations, they will get a sense of who they are through testing different roles, activities, and behaviors. They gain independence, control and a stronger sense of themselves through encouragement and positive reinforcements.
Have you noticed that when things are going well, they become invincible, unstoppable, and strong? It is only when their sense of self is threatened that they become confused, lost, and weak which I will refer to as the roamer. What happens is, they no longer believe in their invincibility and realize that the person that they thought they were is questioned in the face of imminent death and finality. Their process of learning about who they are has been disturbed. Stereotypically, girls are more likely to internalize this experience and show signs of withdrawal, self-blame, and sadness; whereas boys are more likely to externalize the experience by being more aggressive, disruptive, and angry.
Media factors in Teen Coping: Another thing to consider is the media’s portrayal of death where it explores death as a mockery or justified without showing the devastating affects of losing a loved one. Consider how your teen thinks about death and loss in this manner and then ponder how they will handle learning about a sudden death of a friend. A teenager is not yet able to consider how death of a friend, that is the same age or close to age, really means to them. At some point it may mean having to face mortality for themselves and that can be quite scary for your teen. They are left feeling unempowered, helpless, and perhaps even lost.
Wrench in Your Teen Coping plans: One way that your teen’s roaming self may appear is if they lost a friend to an unexpected death. As a teenager, losing a best friend that is approximately your age can leave detrimental effects on their thoughts, feelings, moods, and level of activities that they engaged in. Look for signs of withdrawal such as isolation, not hanging out with their friends as much as they used to; irritability; sadness especially when they are triggered by a thought, picture or place that reminded them of their friend.
These are normal reactions that teens may exhibit especially after loosing their close friend. They will most likely go through these five stages of grief which include, denial, anger, bargaining, depression, acceptance.
Here are some common coping reactions from teens who lost their best friend:
- Uncontrollable Crying
- Mood swings
- Disruptive in school/home/community
- Denial that friend is dead
- Questioning of own mortality
- Confusion about why their friend died
- Unresolved feelings about their friend
- Thoughts that they should have died with their friend or that they would be better off dead
- Thoughts that they are worthless
Bucking up and helping your teen cope with death: As a parent, it would be helpful at this point to help your teen process their feelings and teach them how to cope with them. This is going to be a very difficult time for your teen and they may have outbursts that may make your blood boil; however, if they do flip out the first step is to let them know it is okay for them to be upset and angry. This will allow them to acknowledge what they are feeling and know that it is normal, which is known as normalizing emotions. Their acting out can be remnants of their inability to effectively self-reflect and realize that their anger has a lot to do with the death of their friend.
It will be helpful to allow your teen to talk about the good and bad memories of their friend. Don’t be afraid to bring up these memories with your teen in fear of their reaction. This process will allow them to make sense of the death and eventually come to peace with the experience. Allowing them to feel the hurt, normalizing their pain, and discussing the good and bad memories will let your teen know that it is safe to experience the emotions that they are experiencing and that you understand.
If you noticed any of the reactions noted earlier in your teen, keep reading to find ways to aid your teen into learning how to acknowledge their friends death and remember them forever. Below are ways that you can help your teen memorialize their friend using these activities to help them cope:
Letter to Death
This exercise allows your teen to write a letter to death including the questions they have about why their friend was chosen. By introducing this exercise for your teen, you are helping them learn effective ways to cope that will allow them to express their anger and upset with their friend’s death. After they write their letter, encourage them to read it to you or have them identify a close friend or relative that they can read it out loud to. During the process of them reading the letter, they may feel very emotional, numb, or out of control. Allow them to experience their emotions without using phrases such as, “don’t cry”, “don’t get upset”, “don’t worry they are in a better place”, etc. It is important for you to support your teen without controlling their emotions or having them deny them.
Pictures of Memories
For this exercise, you can have your teen select about three to five photos of their friend from various activities that they both participated in. You can help them put together a poster board collage, album or pictures to put in a decorated shoebox that depicts the images selected with captions about picture or event. Allow you teen to remember the positive moments with their friend by saying, “What was your favorite moment with your friend in this picture?”; “Can you remember the funniest thing your friend did when you guys went to…”; and so on. Doing this will allow your teen to embrace the positive energy that surrounds their thoughts about their friend. When your teen is ready, encourage them to share their picture collage with a group of friends or with family members during a small get-together at your home. Afterward, you can suggest for your teen to store the memories in a shoebox that they can access on the anniversary of their friends passing.
Symbol of Remembrance
Help your teen identify their friend’s favorite piece of jewelry, item of clothing, or saying that their friend was known for? Second, help your teen create a replica of that item to wear as a symbol of their friend. If their friend was known for a particular saying, you can help your teen make an iron-on caption of that saying and press it on one of their shirts to have as a keepsake. You can help them think of creative ways to make symbols of their friends memory to keep with them letting them know that they are with them always.
In closing, you are the example that will help your child learn how to cope effectively with the death of their friend. Helping your child deny their emotions, thoughts and feelings will promote unhealthy coping patterns that can result in ineffective ways of handling stress and other detrimental events in their lives. Using these steps will help you aid your child in making sense of their loss and help you gain a better understanding of your child’s experience. There are numerous activities that will help your child cope better with the death of their friend. It may be helpful to come to The Center for Growth to get a one time assessment to help you develop specific interventions so that you can more effectively be helping your teen cope with death. Call us at 267.324.9564.