Oh, please, let’s talk about the elephant in the room. For if we talk about her death, perhaps we can talk about her life. ~ Terry Kettering
A reader writes: My daughter is 16. Her brother was 17 when he was killed three months ago. As we live where there is no other family she had to be the second one to identify his body. She won't talk. It's like he never existed. I have tried getting her to counseling but she isn't interested. The counselor told me to just be here for her when she needs me and that she is taking her cues from me. But I am really worried that if she bottles this up it will compound later on. I'm not so sure I am right. Can you shed some light please?
My response: I'm so sorry to learn of the tragic death of your son. I certainly can understand your concern for your daughter at this sad and difficult time, and I’d like to offer some thoughts for you to consider.
First, it’s important to recognize that you and your daughter are grieving separate losses – you have lost your son, and she has lost her brother – and each of you will grieve your own personal loss in your own unique way. And just because your daughter is not talking with you about her brother’s death does not mean that she is not grieving. (For a more thorough discussion of this, see my article, How We Mourn: Understanding Our Differences.)
As I’m sure you know, by nature adolescents can be moody and non-communicative. At this stage in your daughter’s development (as a teenager learning to separate from authority figures and find her own identity), it would be very normal for her to feel somewhat alienated from adults. That's why most teens normally turn to their peers rather than their parents when they feel a need for support. At the same time, they don't like to stand out and to feel different from their friends – they want to belong. The trouble is that, unless one or more of your daughter’s friends has experienced the death of a loved one too, it's unlikely that they can fully understand what she is feeling and experiencing as she mourns the death of her brother. That's why 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.
You say you’ve tried getting your daughter into counseling but “she isn’t interested.” Still, it would be helpful if she were encouraged to talk to someone she already knows and trusts, and with whom she feels comfortable talking (a teacher, school counselor, neighbor, friend, relative, clergy person, etc.) Given what has happened in your family, you can alert those adults who are significant in your daughter’s life to help you to keep a watchful eye on your child, and you can ask them to offer additional support and understanding to your daughter during this difficult time. On your daughter’s behalf, you might call your local hospice and ask if there are any support groups or programs in your community aimed at teens who've lost a sibling. On the Internet, you can visit some of the sites that offer information, comfort and support to teens who are grieving, and encourage your daughter to visit them, too. For starters, see Helping Grieving Children: A List of Suggested Resources, and the sites listed on my website's Child, Adolescent Grief page.
You say your daughter “won’t talk – it’s like [her brother] never existed.” It could be that, in an effort to protect you from your own sorrow about the loss of your son, your daughter is reluctant to discuss with you her feelings of grief at the death of her brother. At the same time, you may think that discussing this death with your daughter will only upset her. That happens in families -- no one wants to talk about it and everybody winds up feeling alone and isolated in their grief. But you can model reminiscing and talking openly about your son. Feeling, showing and verbalizing your own pain gives your daughter an example to follow, while holding back implies that feelings are to be suppressed. As your counselor suggested, your daughter may be taking her cues from you. By doing it yourself, you can let your daughter know that talking is a good thing. Talking about your son is what gets both your feelings out in the open so you can acknowledge and deal with them, and it's also what keeps your son’s memory alive in your minds and in your hearts. It could be that your daughter is just aching to talk to you about her brother, and all she needs is to know that you are needing to talk with her about him, too.
To get the conversation going with your daughter, you might want to share with her a piece that appears on the Comfort for Grieving Hearts page of my website:
The Elephant in the RoomPerhaps the best thing you can do for your daughter right now is to take good care of yourself, my dear (continuing to work with your counselor, making sure you get enough rest, hydration, nutrition and exercise, etc.) As your counselor said, more than anything else your daughter needs you to just be there for her when she needs you. And remember that you know your daughter better than anyone else does. Follow your heart, trust your instincts and use your own good judgment. And know that I am thinking of you both.
There’s an elephant in the room.
It is large and squatting, so it is hard to get around it.
Yet, we squeeze by with, “How are you?” and “I’m fine”. . .
And a thousand other forms of trivial chatter.
We talk about the weather.
We talk about school or work.
We talk about everything else —
except the elephant in the room.
We all know it is there.
We are thinking about the elephant as we talk.
It is constantly on our minds,
For you see, it is a very big elephant.
But we do not talk about the elephant in the room.
Oh, please, say her name.
Oh, please, say ‘Barbara’ again.
Oh, please, let’s talk about the elephant in the room.
For if we talk about her death,
Perhaps we can talk about her life.
Can I say ‘Barbara’ and not have you look away?
For if I cannot, then you are leaving me
Alone . . . in a room . . .
With an elephant.
~ Terry Kettering, in Bereavement Magazine,
Reprinted in Ann Landers’ Column, Arizona Republic, 2/12/2000
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