Monday, July 25, 2011

Teen Grief: Mourning the Death of a Parent

 [Reviewed and updated October 30, 2023]

A reader writes: I lost my dad 6 months ago. He had a tumor in his pancreas that was discovered two years before that. He was told he had cancer on my 13th birthday. He had many operations, and cancer treatments like chemotherapy, but after a long struggle he died in a hospice in our city. I live with my mother and my 7-year-old brother. We are happy, but I feel really sad sometimes, because I miss my dad. I was very close to him, and we were very alike in the way we were both mechanical. He was a professor of engineering and he wrote many articles and textbooks. I am very proud of him. I boast about him a lot, and it makes me feel better to know that he did something in his life that was so fantastic – or I think so anyway.  It’s just gone past 6 months since he died, and I’m beginning to feel very sad a lot of the time.

My response: My friend, I am struck by your comment that as you passed the sixth-month mark of your father’s death, you found yourself beginning to feel very sad a lot of the time. I don't know what your experience was at the time of your dad's death, and I don't know how you've been dealing with it ever since, but there are certain things I would want any grieving young person to know, so I am going to share them with you now – and with others who’ll read this post.

Find and accept support.  Grief is best dealt with when you are able to experience your emotional pain, talk with others and express your feelings about a loved one's death, and accept support from family and friends. I don't know what your relationship is like with your mom, but at your age (as a teen learning to separate from authority figures and find your own identity), it would be very normal for you to feel somewhat alienated from adults. That's why most teens normally turn to their peers for support. At the same time, they don't like to stand out and to feel different from their friends – they want to belong. I can tell you that grieving teens do best when they're helped to find peers who've also experienced a death. They're often very relieved to discover they're not the only ones who've had someone close to them die.

Remember: It's never too late to do the work of mourning. Grief doesn't "go" anywhere – it just sits there, waiting for you to deal with it. If you feel as if you still have work to do in this regard, here are some suggestions for you:
  • Find someone you trust (a teacher, school counselor, neighbor, friend, relative, clergy person, etc.) and with whom you feel comfortable talking. Think about what you need from others right now and let them know about it. People won't know what you need from them unless you tell them. Just as you did in the message you sent to me, talk about this wonderful person who died and what was special about your dad. Tell about your experience with the death itself: where you were when the death occurred, what happened right afterward and what you're experiencing right now. Share any dreams you may have had about your dad. 
  • Write a letter to your dad and say whatever you need to say.
  • Gather pictures, words and phrases from magazines and make a collage that tells a story about what you remember about him.
    You also need to know that grief changes through the years. It will change you as well, influencing who you are in the present and affecting who you'll become in the future. This death of your father must be worked through, adapted to, and integrated into your life, as different situations will require you to accommodate this loss again and again. You will re-visit your dad's death continually as you grapple with its meaning— emotionally, socially, economically and spiritually— and as you struggle to find a place for your dad in your present and future life. 
    Finally, know that death ends a life, but it does not end a relationship. The special bond you have with your father will stay with you just as long as you keep his memory alive in your mind and in your heart. He will always be your dad and you will always be his daughter. In a very real sense, your dad is very much here with you now, wherever you are, because his spirit and his memory live on in you, and because you are so very much a part of him. In many ways, you are more inseparable now than you were before, because you are not limited by space and time and distance. I hope this information proves useful to you, my dear. Please accept my deepest sympathy over the loss of your father, and know that I am thinking of you.
    Your feedback is welcome! Please feel free to leave a comment or a question, or share a tip, a related article or a resource of your own in the Comments section below. If you’d like Grief Healing Blog updates delivered right to your inbox, you’re cordially invited to subscribe to our weekly Grief Healing NewsletterSign up here. 

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