Teens and Grief
Hope Edelman, bestselling author of the pioneering book, Motherless Daughters, lost her mother when she was 17. Her life-altering experience was wrenching but hardly unique: Before age 18, approximately 1 out of 14 teens will experience the death of a parent or sibling. Family and friends can help in the immediate aftermath by acknowledging the loss directly. Then, in the months and years that follow, one of the most valuable kinds of support we can offer is helping them keep the memory of their loved one alive.
Why Remembering Matters
Honoring past relationships has significant healing power. The landmark book, Continuing Bonds: New Understandings of Grief, argues staying connected to loved ones is a “healthy part of the survivor’s ongoing life.” (What’s Your Grief has a terrific overview of this concept. You can read it here.) Maintaining these links is so vital to long-term emotional well-being that grief expert J. William Worden developed a whole bereavement-recovery theory about it. This model highlights the obligation of mourners to take control of the process of remembering. The mourner “needs to take action,” he explains. Ken Ginsburg, Co-Founder of the Center for Parent and Teen Communication, agrees, saying: “People heal when they honor the legacy of somebody they’ve lost. It can also help them do good in the world, when they do something positive that reminds them of what their loved one would have done.”
But how can we help adolescents remember, honor, and celebrate their loved ones? There are numerous strategies we can use. Some require planning; others spontaneity. Several involve spending money; many cost nothing at all.
Below are five of my go-to strategies for helping teens celebrate what their family and friends still mean to them. These concepts work. In addition to my role as Senior Writer at the Center for Parent and Teen Communication, I am also a member of the Board of Directors for the National Alliance for Grieving Children and author of Passed and Present: Keeping Memories of Loved Ones Alive, a book that reveals 85 innovative ways to remember and celebrate the family and friends we never want to forget.
How to Remember
- Put the “Social” in Social Media : Suggest your children post pictures of their loved ones online and ask friends and family to share their photos and remembrances, too. This digital back and forth has two uplifting and empowering upsides: it lets them read stories about loved ones they may never have heard before and it keeps the person they’re missing present in their lives.
- Create a Commemorative Playlist: Recommend your young person make a playlist of their loved one’s favorite songs, especially the music they enjoyed together. Kenneth Bilby, a former director at the Center for Black Music Research at Columbia College in Chicago, says music is an essential carrier of memory. It’s “one of the strongest tethers we have to the past,” he says.
- Honor Their Handwriting: Has your teen considered engraving a new or existing piece of jewelry with their loved one’s handwriting? All he or she has to do is bring a note or letter with their loved one’s signature (or any other writing) to a jeweler. Jewelers can etch names into virtually anything — charms, cufflinks, and bracelets.
- Repurpose Clothing: Propose turning their loved one’s T-shirts, jeans, and sweater into quilts, blankets, and pillows. If your adolescent isn’t handy with a needle and thread, help can be found at your local tailor.
- Eat Cake! (or Chicken Parmesan): This may be the easiest idea of all! Encourage your son to eat his loved one’s favorite food. Chocolate cake? Perfect! Pasta and meatballs? Fabulous! Enjoying reminiscent food is a powerful way to spark memories and stay connected to the individuals we miss most.
No matter which ideas you suggest, and no matter which your teen tries, what we want is for teens to recognize that absence and presence can coexist. As I shared during a Google Talk not too long ago, moving forward doesn’t have to mean leaving loved ones behind.