Monday, September 23, 2019

Teen Grief: "People Criticize The Way I Grieve"

[Reviewed and updated July 3, 2021]

No one can make you feel inferior without your consent.  ~ Eleanor Roosevelt

A reader writes: I'm 16 years old. My father died of cancer last week. We were extremely close, and at first I was handling his death very well. Now, as time goes by, I am beginning to miss him so much I can barely perform the everyday tasks without hurting. People criticize the way I grieve. I feel as if nobody could possibly understand the way I feel in the loss of my father. I am very young, and people keep telling me to be strong. Yet, when I am "strong," people question why I'm not grieving. A very dear friend of mine referred your website to me, and I thought that perhaps you could offer some advice to me on a more personal level.

My response: I am so very sorry to learn of the death of your father last week.  You say that at first you were handling this very well but as time goes by, you miss him so much you can barely get through the day. I have to tell you, dear one, that what you describe sounds like normal grief to me. Even though you knew your dad had cancer, even though you knew his illness was terminal, even though you knew he was dying, it still doesn't take away the initial shock and disbelief you felt at the moment of death. 

This death of your father is probably the most earth-shattering, horrible thing that's ever happened to you in your life, and to expect that your mind can take it all in, all at once, is unrealistic, because your heart doesn't want to accept what your brain is telling you. Nature has a way of protecting us from huge shocks like this, as a way of cushioning the blow ~ and so it is normal that your first reaction to your dad's actual death would be one of shock and disbelief. Gradually, as the reality sinks in, you will come to feel the full force of what has happened ~ and that is why, as you say, it is only now, as you become so very aware of his absence, that you are "beginning to miss him so much." 

You also say that "people criticize the way I grieve," as if somehow you are failing at this grief business, and if they were in your position, they would do it so much better that you are doing it. Let me assure you that, when it comes to grief and mourning, there is no right or wrong way to do it ~ there is only YOUR way, and you must discover that for yourself. Don't let anyone tell you how you should or shouldn't be feeling, my dear. Only you know how very much you loved your dad, and only you know how very much you have lost. Read, for example, what this person has to say about dealing with the reactions of others: 
Please See Me Through My Tears 
You asked, "How are you doing?"
As I told you, tears came to my eyes . . .
And you looked away and quickly began to talk again.
All the attention you had given me drained away.
"How am I doing?" . . .
I do better when people listen,
though I may shed a tear or two.
These feelings are indescribable.
If you’ve never felt them you cannot fully understand.
Yet I need you.
When you look away,
when I’m ignored,
I am again alone with them.
Your attention means more than you can ever know.
Really, tears are not a bad sign, you know!
They’re nature’s way of helping me to heal . . .
They relieve some of the stress of sadness.
I know you fear that asking
how I’m doing brings me sadness . . .
but it doesn’t work that way.
The memory of my loved one’s absence is with me,
only a thought away.
My tears make my loss more visible to you,
but you did not cause this sadness.
It was already there.
When I cry, could it be that you feel helpless,
not knowing what to do?
You are not helpless,
and you don’t need to do a thing but be here for me.
When I feel your permission to allow my tears to flow,
you’ve helped me.
You need not speak. Your silence is all I need.
Be patient . . . do not fear.
Listening with your heart to "how am I doing"
validates what I’m going through,
for when the tears can freely come I feel lighter.
Talking to you releases
what I’ve been wanting to say aloud,
clearing space for a touch of joy in my life.
I’ll cry for a minute or two . . . then I’ll wipe my eyes,
and sometimes you’ll even find I’m laughing in a while.
When I hold back my tears, my throat grows tight,
my chest aches, my stomach knots . . .
because I’m trying to protect you from my tears.
Then we both hurt . . .
me, because my feelings are held inside,
causing pain and a shield against our closeness . . .
and you, because suddenly we’re emotionally distant.
So please, take my hand and see me through my tears . . .
then we can be close again.
~ Kelly Osmont, MSW, LCSW, CGP, in What Can I Say and Do? How to Support Someone Who Is Grieving a Loss, © 2000, Centering Corporation. Reprinted with permission of the publisher.
Unfortunately you will continually run into folks who don't have a clue what you are going through, and if you've no past experience with grief yourself, at times your own feelings, thoughts and reactions may make no sense to you, either ~ that's why I think it's so important that you do some reading about what normal grief looks like and feels like. That way, you'll have some idea what to expect in the weeks and months ahead, you'll feel less "crazy" and alone, and you'll know what you might do to manage your reactions, rather than feeling as if your grief is managing you. 

Begin by reading some of the articles I've written on grief ~ you will find them listed here: Marty's Articles and here: Children, Teens and Grief. I also invite you to read my article, Teen Struggles with Reaction to Dad's Death, which I think you will find especially relevant and (I hope) helpful.

See also some of the related resources I've listed below. And please know that my heart is with you at this sad time. 

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