It can be difficult to know what to say to a young teenager who has lost his mother. The death of a mom is heartbreaking at any age -- but it’s especially difficult for adolescents who have not yet experienced much death in their life. Whether it was an expected or unexpected death, it’s tragic for any child because children are not expected to outlive their parents, according to Carolyn Ambler Walter and Judith L.M. McCord, authors of “Grief and Loss Across the Lifespan: A Biopsychological Perspective.” It is important for a young teen in this situation to have the support of family and friends.
Offer your sympathy. Start by saying, “I’m sorry.” This simple statement can provide a lot of comfort to a grieving teen. Pay attention to how she responds; does she want to talk about it? Let her know that your thoughts are with her and offer her your ear at any time. Make it clear that you are willing to listen without judgment. The purpose of saying, “I’m sorry” is to express your care and concern.
Respect his space. When you ask if he wants to talk about his mother’s death, be prepared for him to say no, then give him the option to talk about something else to let him know you are still there for him. For example, you can say, “That’s okay, you don’t have to talk about it if you don’t want to right now.” If he wants to be temporarily distracted, you can bring up topics like sports or a television show. He may eventually change his mind and open up when he is ready to talk.
Understand that she may be experiencing different feelings, which can range from shock, denial, anger, guilt and depression, according to Helen Fitzgerald’s book “The Grieving Teen: A Guide for Teenagers and Their Friends.” Be there to listen and understand that it is normal for any grieving person to feel these emotions. If she expresses anger at her mother or blames herself for her mom’s death, don’t tell her that she shouldn’t feel that way. Acknowledge her grief and let her know what she might expect about grieving. Grief is made up of many complicated emotions and she is likely to experience them at different times, according to Fitzgerald.
Be patient, continue to listen and be supportive of how the teen copes as an individual. Recognize that you may not be able to relate to how he grieves, since everybody deals with death differently, advises Fitzgerald. It may take a while before he feels okay and is ready to return to "normal life." Don’t say, “You have to get on with your life now.” Although it is hard to see somebody dwelling on his pain, it is not an easy thing for a teen to deal with the loss of his mom at such a young age. He probably already wishes he could move on, and comments like this do not help his healing, because grief takes as long as it takes.
Respect her religious beliefs. If she does not believe in heaven, it can be annoying to hear you say something like, “Your mother is with the angels now.” Although you may mean well, she might take offense and see it as you pushing your beliefs on her. The same goes for the opposite. If you do not believe in an afterlife but she believes her mother is in heaven, listen without judgment and do not debate with her.
- Bereaved Children and Teens: A Support Guide for Parents and Professionals; Rabbi Earl A. Gorllman, Ph.D
- The Grieving Teen: A Guide for Teenagers and Their Friends; Helen Fitzgerald
- Grief and Loss Across the Lifespan: A Biopsychological Perspective; Carolyn Ambler Walter, Ph.D and Judith L. M. McCord, Ph.D
- It can be hard to listen and talk to a young teen who has lost her mom, especially if you haven’t been in a similar situation. If you’re not sure what to say or how to help, don’t be afraid to ask her.
- While expressing your sympathies, don’t tell her that you know how she feels. Although your intentions may be to comfort her by letting her know that you can relate, it can make her angry. Even if you have lost a parent or somebody close to you, your grief is still different to hers, according to Fitzgerald.
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