I had 3 teenage boys and a pre-teen daughter when my husband tragically died in a plane crash. None of my children grieved the same and so I had to look for different ways to help each other. Here is a list of the things that were suggested by grief counselor, Kent Allen, as well as a few that worked for us.
1. Grieving Groups:
Some states mandate grieving groups. Check out the laws and ask the school counselors. Other cities have private foundations that offer groups for children. The challenge is talking your pre-teens and teens into attending. Most cringe at the thought if not refuse to participate in any activity that will require them to divulge their feelings. I was able to convince my younger two to try it out for 3 weeks with the bribery of ice-cream. The older two refused. Groups vary in their effectiveness as well, so it takes a lot of proactivity from the parent to get your children involved and to make sure that it is helping. A good grieving group should have a class period at the begining where they focus on a particular issue. They should also have a time when the kids can discuss things that are happening in their life. It is not healthy to sit and talk about something over and over and over again, so if the grieving group is just doing the later, then it is not a healthy grieving group. Ask questions and discuss with your children what is going on in the grieving group. If you feel that what they are doing is not beneficial, and they don’t like it, then find another group or a private counselor to help. I know, it sounds like a lot of work, but the work done in the beginning can often prevent larger problems from developing. Being proactive it worth it.
2. Be the adult and the parent:
When you see your children grieving, realize where they are and what they are feeling. Understand that even though you have lost a spouse, you have not lost a parent. Try to see the unstable and insecure environment they are coping with using the immature mental, emotional and social skills of a child. Calm down, feel empathy for them, and let that empathy, not anger guide your interactions with them. The more stable you can make your home and the calmer your interactions are with your teenagers, the less volatile problems you will have.
3. Be available for your teenager when they need to talk:
It is important to keep tabs on your teens and know how they are functioning in their life. This requires a relationship of trust and friendship. Families who have those close bonds before the death of a parent have a heads up in this department, but don’t despair if your relationships with your teens are strained. Difficult situations have the power to bring families closer together if we choose to use them to do such. The best way to talk to your teens is to get them involved in an activity and talk to them while you are doing the activity. Play and work together with your kids and do things that they enjoy doing. Sit down discussion are rarely productive with teens, but spending time with them allows those conversations to happen naturally. We had a lot of conversations while we were practicing driving out on the backroads. I also did a lot of yard work with my teen age boys, and the discussions we had pitching mulch made a huge difference in our family. Give yourself permission to play with your kids, it will be healing for all of you. When they are willing and want to talk, do not put off the opportunity, because they will not want to do it later. Even if they are late for school, the talking and the healing have to take precedence over schedules and grades.
4. Watch for signs of suicide:
Children do not think rationally as teenagers. If you are talking with them and spending time with them then you will notice the warning signs. If you children ever say, “I want to die.” Take that serious and get them into a therapist or a doctor to get an assessment. Take the precautions if you are in doubt. Here is a link to Kent Allen’s online suicide assessment
5. Know when to get help by watching for signs that your children are beginning to grieve:
Anger is part of the process, so don’t be surprised if kids act out. It is a symptom of their emotional injuries. Be empathetic, but don’t allow bad behavior patterns to begin or for them to lash out towards other grieving family members. State what is acceptable behavior and follow through with consequences, but don’t fall into the trap of getting angry back. Initially it is not uncommon for grades to drop, but if the pattern continues or begins again into the second year then it is time to be concerned and look for therapy. If you teens begins to isolate themselves or withdraw then it is absolutely essential to get help.
6. Find Comfort items that help your children grieve:
- Make an individual scrapbook or CD of pictures with each child and their deceased parent. Make copies of home movies.
- Use old clothes to make a patchwork quilt or a pillow. This is a great project for a family or friend to take over and do for you. My mother used my husband’s knit shirts to make an appliqué quilt for my daughter. They made blocks together that reminded her of her dad. This was a great bonding project to do with her grandma.
- Let them use or spray cologne or perfume from their parent on a pillow or blanket or clothing item for comfort
- Let you children wear clothing items from their parent, even an old t-shirt for pajamas is comforting. My boys wore their dad’s hats, scarves, gloves, ties, shoes and other clothing and still do because of the comforting memories associated with them.
- If you are staying in the home you live in, buy a memory tree and plant it in the yard. Sitting in the shade of the tree can give them time to process their feelings. Be aware that boys, in their frustration have been known to physically take their emotions out on the tree. Don’t worry if this happens. Buy another tree and be grateful that it could be used as an outlet.
7. Create Special Events:
Teenagers want to have rituals. Even though we may not want to celebrate holidays and special events, children need to get back to the rituals. We do not have to do the same things, but something needs to be established to fulfill those needs. Rituals hold memories and families together. Even though this is hard, it is absolutely essential. The first one or two may be hard, but after that these rituals are healing. We have a special page with posts dedicated to these Special Days. Get your kids involved in deciding what they want to do.
8. Get significant people involved in your kids lives:
Daughters who have lost a mom need a woman that they can talk to and do things with. Sons who have lost a dad need a man in their life who can serve as a role model. Find family members or friends who can fulfill those roles. Sometimes, if your kids will not talk to you or a therapist, they will talk to another adult that they look up to. A trusted adult friend or family member can help to fill the void of the lost parent.
9. Get your kids in an exercise program:
Boys in particular do better when they are exercising. Physical exercise clears the head, gives you time to think, and just getting worn out and tired can be healing. Think about what you can do as a family to exercise. Biking, hiking, walking are all great ways to burn off energy and to find opportunities to communicate.
10. Get your kids involved in something good they can put their energy into:
Some kids feel great pride in getting a job and working. Others kids focus on extra curricular events, hobbies, or service oriented projects. Again, these can be family or sibling oriented projects. Involve extended family if they are around. Check out some posts by teens about what helped them get through grief. Let your kids interests guide them. Never pressure them to participate in activities that they do not want to do.
11. Limit your children’s use of electronic devices:
The virtual world can be an escape from the real world. Avoiding life and grief will not help them overcome and work through their feelings. Don’t let electronic devices impede real relationships with family and friends that can lead to healing.
12. Circle the wagons and focus more on family:
Cut out non-essential activities. Focus on the family relationships that remain. Reducing stress in the home and spending time together in positive and uplifting ways will create opportunities for teens to talk when they are ready. I shared what I was learning with my teens. They were not always excited about talking about these things, but bit by bit, as I was patience and persistent over time, they began to open up and they began to accept new perspectives that I shared with them.