Losing a Young Friend
an atricle about grief in adolescents
Grief for anyone is a difficult emotion. Someone or something we loved dearly has gone forever. Even if we believe in an after-life where we might meet up again, that meeting is a long way off and we have no idea what it will be like there. There may be more things we should have said or done. Now it is too late. What is more, we miss them badly. There is a big hole in our life.
When something like this hits an adolescent, though, it may be ten times worse. To start with, youngsters aged between 14 and 17 tend to feel emotions more keenly anyway. This is something totally new and strange to them. A grieving adult will have often experienced grief before and knows, even if it is their first time, that it is a process that has an end. The young person meets this stage of grief at a time in their lives when they are dealing with many other powerful feelings. They are coping with pressure at school. Their body, including their brain, is changing rapidly and dramatically. They are forming their first relationships with members of other sexes. They are trying to paint the world with their own colours. They are establishing their identity. Death is something which happens to old people, not to them or their friends. People these days are living much longer, so even grandparents often don’t die until one is at least in one’s 20s. For the teenager such a loss is largely undocumented. When that loss happens to be of a close friend, of someone of a similar age to oneself, the jolt is twice as harsh.
There are seven stages of grief we need to go through before we can become whole again. The first is shock. Even when the friend or relation has been terminally ill, their actual passing is still painful for us. There may be physical symptoms – feeling nauseous or cold, for example. After my mother died, I would shiver violently, as if cold, whenever I spoke to someone about it on the phone. Being with the person when they die, or seeing the corpse heightens the experience. This is not a comfortable thing to do, but it does ground you in what has happened. Often that privilege is denied to the young person. Another symptom of shock can just be drifting along, not believing that it has actually happened, and having the impression that one is somehow trapped in some sort of nightmare. This is often the case for the young person who had not been allowed to see at first hand that the death has actually occurred.
Often after the initial shock has worn off comes a period of denial. One goes about life as if nothing has happened. You get up as normal, go to school or work as normal. Maybe other people avoid you a bit, because they don’t know what to say. You are almost grateful to them for not making you confront what has happened. It’s almost as if the person who died had never been there. You just get on with life. Teenagers, of course, find it even harder to talk to the friend who has just lost someone. They are even more afraid of the tears than an adult would be, and have even less idea of what to say. Even when I was a little older than that, and my flat-mate’s father died suddenly, she pleaded with me to tell all of our friends that she wanted them to talk to her about what had happened. And yes she might cry occasionally, but they were not to be embarassed
Then there is the anger. You are angry with the person who died because you somehow think that they had some control over when they died and they chose to go away from them. You may also be angry with medical experts who didn’t do enough. And even those with the staunchest faith in whichever God their religion supports can rant and rage at the God they once trusted, even if they don’t lose their belief in His very existence. For the adolescent there may be even more anger: they are prone to high emotions. Yet their enhanced anger is partly justified because they have less power than the adult. They may not have been involved in any decision about when to turn off any life support system or about whether a life-prolonging drug should be administered. There may be anger too, at other adults who have denied them access to the dying friend. Sometimes they may think that parents could have done more to prolong that life. A young girl in my tutor group lost her mother to cancer of the ovaries. There came a point when the medics suggested withdrawing food and fluids from the dying woman, allowing her to die. The husband agreed. The daughter was distressed. It seemed incredibly cruel to her and no-one had involved her in the decision.
Then our own guilt kicks in. We realize that we cannot blame others without also blaming ourselves. We should have insisted. Shyness or our won selfish concern about how powerless we were stopped us from doing the best for our friend. Then we think about how we were with the deceased during their life time. Should we have been with them more? Should we have done more to make their last days more comfortable, or pleasanter? The tears wept in buckets at the school assembly when the death of student is announced are usually tears of guilt as much as anything else. We lost one of our students suddenly to a road traffic accident. A girl in my French class was inconsolable. She should have been going out with him that afternoon, but she called off the date at the last minute. If she hadn’t, he wouldn’t have been crossing that particular road at that particular time. I myself came across some of the boy’s work a few days later. If only I had been quicker with my marking, he would have known before he died, that he had just scraped through his mock GCSE and he would be entered for the exam. Of course, we can’t be expected to speed up our work just in case. If we did, we would end up being ill and possibly also dying prematurely. But that is what the guilt does to us.
The anger and guilt settle down. The death is acknowledged. The bereaved begins to get used to life without the beloved. Yet it is not the same. The sun does not uplift anymore. How can there be a spring or a summer again when he or she is not there to share it? Their death reminds you of your own mortality. What is the point of life? You only die at the end of it. You go through the motions, probably because it easier to do that than to do something dramatic, and besides you don’t want to bring attention to yourself. Except that adolescents often do do something dramatic. Another young girl I knew actually kept having black outs. Life seemed so futile to her after grandmother died that she stopped looking eating properly and could hardly sleep, but refused all help.
At some point, thankfully, something happens which makes us accept the death. It probably happens because we are ready for it to happen, because we have spent sufficient time in the other stages. But often it will be triggered by something simple which reminds us of the person. It will often be accompanied by a strong feeling that the person is there with you. This happened to me quite shortly after my favorite cousin died at the age of 48. I had been to the funeral and was spending a few days at the seaside with his wife and children. We were walking along the beech at dusk. It had been one of the hottest days that West Wales had ever known. I had such a strong feeling that Geoff was with us and that he was pleased that I had helped his family. I mentioned this to Jo.
“It really feels as if Geoff is with us,” I said.
“Yes,” she said, “this is exactly the spot where he rescued those to scouts who were in trouble. And it was a day just like today when it happnend.”
We’d been to the local church earlier in the day to asked permission to bury his ashes in the church yard. He loved this particular seaside place and he had indeed saved two boy scouts from drowning on that part of the beach some years before. Jo had carried with her a newspaper cutting of the story when we went to visit the vicar. Permission was duly granted.
I could move on then. I guess Jo, Giles, Elizabeth, Charles and James, had some more way to go. They had lost a husband and a father, which impacts more on your daily life than losing a dearly loved cousin. Somehow, though, that evening Geoff had given me permission to move on. From that moment onwards, whenever I think of Geoff, and various things do still bring him to mind, I think how glad I am that he lived and what a privilege it was for me to have known him.
So, we move into the final stage of grieving and that is celebration - of the life of the departed. Often, we rush into this stage too quickly. We hold the memorial service or we set up the charitable fund to assuage out guilt, to make us feel as if are doing something which we should have perhaps done whilst the person was still alive. There is often a gut reaction in the adolescent which says. ”Right we’re going to set up a fund to do research into cancer. We’re never going to allow someone so young to die like that again.” It is good, of course, that they show such enthusiasm and that they care so much. But because those initial reactions are carried by anger and guilt, as those feelings calm down, so does the enthusiasm. One needs to wait until the time is right. That is when the grieved has the feeling that the deceased has given them permission it move on. This may be an almost supernatural experience but it so also likely to be simply that one has worked out, deep down, that the death was appropriate, that it was no-one’s fault, that death is part of life and that life is good despite it ending in death, and perhaps, most importantly, that the departed person did not expect more of you than you have given. At that point, you are really in the position of celebrating the life of the person who died. This may indeed be in the form of setting up some sort of charitable memorial fund. It may simply be holding them in a special place in your memory. It may be both of these things and many more.
Each of these stages takes its own time, - anything from just a few minutes up to several years. We must allow the grieving adolescent to go through them all, and just be there for them. Perhaps too, we need to think about their friends who do not understand what is happening... We must be prepared to explain it to them so that they too can support their friend.