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My Mum / Dad is Dying

Life changes dramatically when you are a teen and your parent is dying.

The parent that was once a strong dad or a tough mum suddenly becomes a patient. The home turns into a waiting room. The roles in the family change. Friends’ talk about makeup and boyfriends lose all meaning. The pain is constantly present, but it has no outlet.

A teenager whose parent is dying may experience a wide range of emotions, from intense sadness to relief that his father/ mother’s pain will end.

Loved ones can do plenty to help a teenager struggling with grief.

What is it like for teenagers when someone close to them dies? How do they respond to the death of a parent? Keep in mind that when a teen loses someone significant, he or she is grieving whether you can see it or not.

People often confuse “grieving” and “mourning.”  Grieving refers to the internal experience of the teen, whereas mourning is the public expression of the internal grief.

Six Basic Principles of Grief

  • Grieving is a natural reaction to a death.

    Even though grieving is a natural reaction to death and other losses, it does not feel natural because it may be difficult to control the emotions, thoughts, or physical feelings associated with death. The sense of being out of control that is often a part of grief may overwhelm or frighten some teens.

  • Each grieving experience is unique.

    Grieving is a different experience for each person. Teens grieve for different lengths of time and express a wide spectrum of emotions.

  • There are no “right” and “wrong” ways to grieve.

    There is no correct way to grieve. Coping with a death does not follow a simple pattern or set of rules nor is it a course to be evaluated or graded.

    There are, however, “helpful” and “unhelpful” choices and behaviors associated with the grieving process. Some behaviors are constructive and encourage facing grief such as talking with trusted friends, journaling, creating art, and expressing emotion rather than holding it inside.

    Other grief responses are destructive and may cause long-term complications and consequences. These include alcohol and substance use, reckless sexual activity, antisocial behaviors, and withdrawal from social activities.

  • Every death is unique and is experienced differently.

    The way teens grieve differs according to their personality and the particular relationship they had with the deceased.

  • The grieving process is influenced by many issues.

    The impact of a death on a teen relates to a combination of factors, including:

    • Available social support systems

    • Circumstances of the death (how, where, and when the person died)

    • Whether or not the youth unexpectedly found the body

    • The nature of the relationship with the person who died

    • The teen’s level of involvement in the dying process

    • The emotional and developmental age of the teen

    • The teen’s previous experiences with death

  • Grief is ongoing.

    Grief never ends, but it does change in character and intensity. Many grievers have compared their grieving to the constantly shifting tides of the ocean: ranging from calm, low tides, to raging high tides that change with the seasons and the years.

    The “never-ending, but changing” aspect of grief may be one of the least understood. Most people are anxious for teens to have closure and “put the death behind them” so that they can go on. But death leaves a vacuum in the lives of those left behind. Life is never the same again.

    This does not mean that life can never be joyful again, nor that the experience of loss cannot be transformed into something positive. But grief does not have a magical closure. People report pangs of grief 40, 50, even 60 years after a death. Grief is not a disease that can be cured, but a process we learn to incorporate into our lives

The Death of a Parent

The death of a parent is usually a devastating, distressing experience in the life of a teen. When a parent dies, a young person’s sense of security and stability in the world is turned upside down, regardless of the nature of the parent-child relationship.

A parent’s death disrupts the teen’s life with radical complications. Suddenly the teen is different from peers and feels strange and alone. The death of a parent becomes the defining event in the teen’s life. A teen begins to define his or her life in two categories: “before” or “after” the death.

Teens who have conflicting, even abusive, relationships with parents may experience a sense of relief, ambivalence, guilt or regret after a parent dies. The death means the loss of hope and opportunities for restoring the relationship.

Although grieving teenagers may hide their emotions, these emotions can still be intense. Let them know it is okay to be upset and cry. Teenagers can try to protect the parent by keeping quiet about their own feelings; they may need to be given ‘permission’ to express what they think and feel.

Teenagers should never be told that they will be taking the place of the parent who has died, rather you should help them focus on their needs for the future, such as education or training.

Grieving teens are also coping with the realization that they will not have a father or mother to celebrate rites of passage. You can help them by recognizing that those events will be difficult times without the parent. As those events approach, it is important to help teens consider creative ways to memorialize the deceased.

The teen left with only one biological parent is often also concerned, consciously or unconsciously, with the possible death of the surviving parent.

The surviving parent is usually the main person who must provide the help a child needs in coming to terms with the death of the other parent. However, often the surviving parent is so involved and even incapacitated by their own grief that support from friends and relatives proves essential.

If religion is an important part of your life, share your beliefs with your children. This may provide them with answers, which may help now in the future.

If you feel you are not able to help the teenager cope with grief and the problems reflecting that grief, then seek professional help.

What do teenagers need?

  • They need their other parent’s attention; to know that he or she is there to take care of them, and they also need to hear that these are difficult times, but together they will learn and they will go on.

  • Teenagers need to know about the family’s financial situation. They cannot take the role of the dead parent, nor should they be expected to. Sometimes the remaining parent places unrealistic expectations and roles on the teen to take over parental functions. This shouldn’t happen.

  • They also need to know what changes may take place in the way the family lives together and manages, and how they can be helpful.

  • They need to know that it is okay to show their feelings if they want to, and to talk about their now dead parent; but they also need to know that there is no given time within which they must do this. Encourage healthy ways to release emotions through sporting or cultural activities

  • They need to know that their wish to be quiet is respected.

  • Teens need a sense of security and safety, and that can be more important than anything else. Their needs must be fulfilled.

References

  1. A dying loved one: The teenage perspective. Considering the complex emotions felt by teens during the difficult grieving period. By Christine Langlois

  2. How Teenagers Cope. Teens need support, perspective and vocabulary for grieving

  3. Science Nordic Children with dying parents should get more support. November 5, 2012 – 06:03

  4. The Prevention Researcher, Volume 9, Number 2, 2002 by Phyllis R. Silverman, Ph.D. in Raising Grieving Children

  5. When a Parent Dies. A guide for patients and their families. Hospice

Last Reviewed : 22 December 2014
Writer : Dr. Hargeet Kaur A/P Basant Singh
Accreditor : Dr. Nazrila Hairin bte. Nasir