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Permission to Grieve: When You Can’t Be with Your Elderly Parent or Ill Loved One Due to a Pandemic — Lisa Athan

Being with our loved ones, especially our elderly parents or grandparents is something that many people, up until now, may have taken for granted. If you are fortunate enough to live close to them, a road trip or flight away from them you could always count on planning a visit and just going. You could spend an hour, a day, a week and be in the company of your loved ones. You could hug and kiss them, cook with or for them, sit and watch a movie together, argue with them, laugh with them, play cards, listen to music together, or just hang out. You could enjoy being close. If you have an elderly loved one who is ill or seriously ill, you could also plan to visit and be there for them.

Now we have suddenly found ourselves living a new normal. We are living in a time of a pandemic. Everything is different. Things like a visit with a senior parent or grandparent or adult children or the grandchildren is suddenly no longer allowed due to safety precautions. We can’t just go and be together. And this is a time we so want and need that closeness. So many today have older parents living in a nursing home, assisted living, or even in their own home a distance away, but now due to fears of contagion we need to keep a distance. Obviously practicing social distancing is crucial to save lives, but it comes at an emotional cost, one that hurts deeply.

Our elderly loved ones so need connection.  We need connection with them. They want to touch and be close to their children and grandchildren. We want to be close to them, too. We want to be with them now and reassure them and have them reassure us. We want to care for them.

When I think about all our elderly loved ones who may be sick or are even just alone, it feels so wrong that we cannot visit them. It feels unreal. I have spoken with so many clients and friends lately who are heartbroken over not being able to be with their loved ones now. The distance feels excruciating to them and their loved ones. Some who have senior parents who have dementia are struggling to explain to their parents why they suddenly can’t visit them. So painful.

I recently took a photo of a dear friend who was visiting her ill mom at an assisted living home. My friend wasn’t able to go inside to see her mom, as she regularly does due to safety precautions. That was the way they were able to visit. Many can’t even have a window visit. Our elderly are at a higher risk of getting seriously ill or dying from this virus. We have to protect them, yet not being able to be with them, to have them close by, to touch them, to sit near them even as they eat or sleep, goes against every fiber of our being.

Some are going through a devastating time now as their loved one is dying or has recently died and they aren’t allowed to be with them. Many grievers are now sharing on social media more than ever about their beloved parent, grandparent, aunt, uncle, sibling or child who has died from the virus or from something else. People are offering condolences and acknowledging the pain for their friend who couldn’t be at their beloved parent’s bedside to say goodbye. To share one more hug or kiss or word. To be there with them in their last hours. So much grief.

Yes, there are things we can do- we can call, we can video, we can go and visit through a window, we can write, but it isn’t the same. Nothing is the same as being there. It’s a loss like nothing else. It’s painful and lonely to be the person isolated, as well as to not be able to be with our beloved ones at a time when they so need us near and we so need them near.

My heart goes out to all of you now who are experiencing something like this. I am so deeply sorry if you can’t be with your loved one. I am so sorry if you can’t hold them, touch them, smell them, sit with them or just be with them. There really are no words, which is something my mom used to say after a person experienced a deep loss. Those words are so fitting right now. 

Not only were they not able to be with their loved ones to say goodbye, but they are also not able to have a funeral, wake, or service due to prohibited gatherings. The mourners can’t even have viewings for close friends and family to be there with them, to share stories, and hold their hands, hug them, and cry with them, and mourn together. To grieve as a community.

But please know that you are not alone. It’s so painful and heartbreaking and we wish it was different.

Take care of yourself and each other now. Give yourself permission to grieve, time to cry, yell and write about your pain. Share with someone who really gets it. We need some virtual support groups now for those who are going through this agonizing time.

And please know that this is a time of intense grief for so many people on so many levels. We need to be extra kind, patient, and compassionate with ourselves and to one another.

I invite any of you to share a photo or write about your loved ones. We would love to hear about the people you are missing here on this page. We can show so much love and support to you. And hold your heart at this very painful time.

Thank you for reading. Thanks for being on this page. So many of you offer so much kindness and compassion to each other when it’s so needed.

About eight years ago I wrote “Permission to Grieve When Your Child Goes to College” and was met with an overwhelming positive response. It still runs annually in the fall and I still get many letters from parents who have shared their grief with me that they once felt no one understood. Today with the Covid-19 Pandemic, I now feel led to write a series of Permission to Grieve articles. Not that anyone really needs permission to grieve, but often my grieving clients and friends share with me that it feels more often that they don’t have permission to grieve different types of loss scenarios.  

 Permission to Grieve When Your Children Go Away to College — Lisa Athan [printed in The Patch]

I remember four years ago August very clearly. The focus was on my oldest daughter Carly going off to college. She was only going an hour away to Monmouth University, however, I still felt sad that she wouldn't be living home anymore. Don't get me wrong, I also felt happy, proud and excited as well but the grief was the emotion that I was feeling the strongest. I realized during that summer and fall the importance of listening to others when they share their sadness over changes in their lives. I truly needed someone to listen to me but had trouble finding people who would truly just listen. Instead, when I did share about my feelings of grief, most people were not at all supportive and even looked at me strangely and said with a judgmental tone, "Aren't you happy for her?", "Isn't her going to college a good thing?", "I couldn't wait til mine left." I walked away from most of these interactions feeling unheard, frustrated, and feeling that that there was something wrong with me.  After all there are commercials on TV showing parents pretending to be sad when the kids leave home and then jumping for joy and throwing parties. So what was wrong with me? Why couldn't I only feel happy and thrilled at this wonderful opportunity for Carly? I guess I wasn't supposed to be sad or at the very least I wasn't supposed to talk about it.

So I stopped telling others how I felt. I also vowed to become a better comforter of others when they shared with me any sadness or pain in their lives. I also wanted to teach others how to really listen to their friends, loved ones and co-workers when they shared anything emotional.  I would remind them not to try to fix it or to be so quick to offer advice. Just listen and try to understand. It isn't hard to really listen, but it is a skill that we would all benefit from practicing.  I wish that listening was taught in school. Our relationships would improve immensely.

Grief is not only due to a death or divorce, but grief can come from any type of separation, ending or change in our lives. I found myself comparing my loss to other's losses. As a grief counselor, I warn folks not to do this. I shamed myself when I thought of all of those I know who have lost a child through death and knew that this loss could not even come close. Minimizing my loss though didn't help. My grief felt like an ending. It was the beginning of the end of my experience of being the kind of mom as I had been for the past 17 years. It was the beginning of my children becoming independent and not needing me in the same way as they had before. I know that is what is supposed to happen and all about giving our children roots and wings, but knowing that didn't make if feel any better.

I loved having all of my kids home and around. I don't think that will ever change. I am one who wishes there could be a law that if family gets along then our siblings have to return to live in the same town so that cousins can live near each other. I know quite a few families in Springfield whose children are all in this town and the cousins even go to school together and grandparents are able to be very involved in thier day to day lives.  It is wonderful to see.  I can appreciate that as my younger brother lives in Illinois and we only see his family once a year. I wish that young adult children could get jobs that were close by their family and at the very least live in the same state. However I know that with today's economy that doesn't always happen. One woman told me "Today you are lucky if your kids live in the same country as you since quite a few of them get jobs in far away places." Her son works in China. I immediately thought of my first cousin who lives in Amsterdam with his family. We miss him so much.

Then I started to wonder about other parents. Weren't they sad as well?  How can we live with our children for 17, 18 or 19 years and then drop them off at college without us experiencing any feelings of grief? I came up with many ideas: Maybe some didn't really like being with their kids.  Maybe some were denying their true feelings of sadness or just pretended they were "fine".  Maybe some were truly anxious to get back to their own lives that didn't involve their children as much. Whatever it was, I wanted to find the other parents who felt like me. I was on a mission. I even ran a workshop in town four years ago called: They're Excited About Going Away to College, But What About Us?  About ten moms attended the workshop and it was great to share with each other.

Over the past four years I have spoken with many moms and dads who have shared their own grief with me about their children leaving home. Often with couples, it is one parent who expresses sadness more than the other. Some confide to me that it is their own spouse who "shamed them" about their feelings of grief, especially if the dad was grieving.

I recently had the pleasure of meeting a Navy Seal dad at a Long Island AAU basketball tournament, who shared with me that of all the experiences he has had in his life, including that of a Seal, nothing was as hard as dropping his oldest daughter off to college last year and saying goodbye. He told me how he cried the whole drive back. He has five children and is already grieving about his second child who is a high school senior who will be going away next year. I felt such a sense of validation from this kind father's honest sharing. It helped me to feel better about my own feelings. Sometimes just talking to others who feel similarly to the way we feel can help enormously. We don't feel so alone and we feel a bit more "normal".

Anyway, if you are a parent who has a child going away to college and you feel sad, find people who will listen to you and show comfort. Allow yourself to feel the grief. Don't talk yourself out of how you feel. Find support on Facebook as many parents I see lately doing. "Pack lots of tissues" one mom said in a post to another who shared that they were on their way to college.

It really does get easier, although I will confess that each year she packed up and left I cried. One time Carly said, "Mom, I am a senior at college. We have been through this many times. Why do you still cry when I leave?" "I don't know", I sniffled, "I just miss you."  I guess it's love or neurosis, but that is who I am. I know I will cry when my younger ones leave the nest as well, but at least they all know how I get, so it won't be a surprise to them. Who knows maybe it makes them realize just how much they are loved. I hope so.

"Listening is a high art of loving. Ask yourself," When is the last time I really listened to my child? My parent? My brother or sister? When someone is ready to share, three magic words amplify your connection, and they are, "Tell me more." ~ Rev. Mary Manin Morrissey

We Clear Our Schedules for a Funeral But Not for a Lunch Date — Lisa Athan [Printed in The Patch]

"Sorry, but I don't have the time for dinner or even a cup of coffee with you next Tuesday, but honestly, if you were to die on Sunday, I am sure that I would drop everything to attend your funeral on Tuesday. So, as long as you are alive on Tuesday, I will have to say no."

Of course no one would ever say these words out loud, and yet sometimes I feel as if we live like this.

One day as I was doing my daily reading of the obituaries, I was struck by the thought that most of the time, we find out about a death and the funeral from reading the paper, or from an e-mail or a phone call. We usually have only a day or two notice, if that. Yet, we respond immediately by clearing our calendars and Blackberry planners so that we are available. Nothing seems more important than attending the funeral, wake or service to show our respect for the person who has died.

I do find it fascinating that we, as busy people living such hectic lives, who pride ourselves on multi-tasking, can drop everything to attend a funeral, yet so long as the person is alive, we decline invitations for lunch or coffee because we're too busy. "Perhaps another time," we say. We tend to assume that there will always be a chance for another time.

Working in the field of grief has made me more appreciative of life and reminds me that each moment is sacred and that tomorrow is not guaranteed to anyone. We never really know how much time we have left to spend with our friends and loved ones. That notion motivates me to make people a No. 1 priority. I have learned to drop everything for the important people in my life when asked. I share this idea with people whenever I deliver workshops on grief. Many people thank me for reminding them all how precious life is. Many share that they already made some dates with their friends and loved ones before the workshop was even over. Don't put it off. Make a call today. Even if you can't see the person, you can talk on the phone, write a handwritten note or an email or even video chat. 

Douglas C. Smith, an inspirational author and speaker on death and dying, shares a powerful example of this from his own life. Many years ago, he and his younger brother had talked for quite some time about taking a bike trip together out west. They were both in their 20s and both very busy with their careers, so they kept putting it off, although both really wanted to have this great bonding experience.

Doug wrote himself a note on his calendar months away, to remind him to call his brother and make the date firm. Well tragically, his brother died a short time later and they never did get to take that trip. Doug was devastated but weeks later decided to make meaning out of his tragedy. Doug keeps that laminated calendar page framed on his wall and to this day, years later, reads it as a fierce reminder that life is precious and not to put off spending time with people who we care about. He encourages us to make time for the important people in their lives before it is too late. I thank Doug for that lesson.

I hope each and everyone of you makes some time to spend with someone important in your life this week. Make of list of those who you have been meaning to see but life got in the way. Make a call today. You will be very grateful that you did.

"Enjoy the little things in life for one day you may look back and realize they were the big things." ~ Antonio Smith

Check out my website, www.griefspeaks.com for information, support and resources dealing with grief and loss in the lives of children, teens and adults.

Please visit my two Facebook pages: Grief Speaks (quotes, resources and inspiration for grievers and those who care about them) and a brand new one, Grief Speaks 4 Teens (full of cards written by teens sharing their thoughts, feelings and concerns about grief, loss and other tough stuff).

Books by Douglas C. Smith: Caregiving: Hospice-Proven Techniques for Healing Body and Soul; Being a Wounded Healer.


Helping a Friend Cope with a Tragic Death — Lisa Athan [Published in the Springfield Patch 1/6/12]

Here are some thoughts on how to support a friend, neighbor or co-worker who has experienced a tragic death.

Simply be there. Keep your friend company. You don’t need to say something profound or do anything earthshaking. Just let your friend know that you are there for them and that you will be there for whatever it is they need, if that's true. Just being present, without having to say too much can be a great comfort. Then your friend will knows that if she wants or needs to talk she can, but doesn't have to.

Asking a general question, “What can I do?” can be too difficult to answer in the days and weeks after a tragic death. Your friend may feel overwhelmed by all that needs to be done. It helps to be more specific with questions like, “Do you need groceries?” “Do you need a ride to the…?" "Would you like me to pick up your children at school?"

Please don’t wait for your friend to call you. Please initiate contact and you can even suggest some activities. Respect that your friend may be feeling very tired but please don't let that discourage you from contact. Sometimes a brief check in call, a text or stopping in for a cup of coffee are much appreciated.  Often grieving people, especially those who have lost someone in a violent death, tend to feel isolated and alone, as people around them don't know what to say and may avoid them. Often they won’t reach, because it takes energy to do that and may be difficult for them to reach out and ask for help.

Tell them you are around to listen to them any time and really be there. (Of course, if you can’t or are too uncomfortable, please don’t offer). Many grievers remember empty promises that many make but don't keep. Offer a shoulder to cry on, open your heart to their pain. The greatest gift we can offer is the gift of our undivided attention that allows the person to share their story, if they want to, instead of holding it all inside. Please don't ask them about details, unless they want to share them. And then, take please care of yourself. If it is too difficult for you to hear be honest.

Help him to remember the good things. Share memories and listen when he share his own memories. If he begins to show his emotions outwardly, know that you haven’t made him upset, you simply have created a safe space for him to open up a bit more open in your presence, which is a compliment to your presence. You may want to share a story, a photo, a song or something that you remember fondly about the person. Those stories are priceless.

Listen, listen and listen some more. They may need to tell the story again and again as a way to begin to process their enormous grief. Please don’t judge your friend even if they say something that seems outrageous. Please do not ask about any details, unless the friend initiates that and wants  to “tell you the story” and you are willing or able to listen.

Be careful of cliches, religious platitudes or easy answers. These don't help. You may not be able to help with certain issues right now, so don’t be too quick to share your opinions if they say something you don’t agree with. They need time to work things out in their own way and own time. Most of these statements wind up making a bereaved friend feel misunderstood or angry.

Don’t tell a bereaved parent that at least she has other children or she can have more, or at least she had her child for that many years. And don't tell them stories of families that have had it even worse. It isn't a competition of loss. Don’t tell the person that you know exactly what they are going through, even if you lost someone in a violent way. It isn’t ever the exact same thing because people have different relationships and we are all different.

Do send a note of condolence, however brief, written in your own words, rather than a store bought card. This is especially true if you can’t be there in person. It may seem like a trivial act, but it is often experienced with incredible impact; people even in the deepest shock or despair usually recall for many years and with absolute precision, who spoke out of comfort to them and who did not.

Be there after the first wave is over too.  Often in the early days and weeks, many people are around to help, but as the weeks and months go by, less people are around. People tend to go back to their lives and forget. Your friend cannot forget what happened.  That is a very good time to call or visit.

Most importantly: please don’t run away. Even if you are uncomfortable, try to stay with the grieving friend. At times you may feel uneasy seeing sides of him or her that you have never seen before. Do not judge. And please know that you can't “fix” anything that has happened or make it "all better",  but your being there, in whatever way you can, is of great importance.

Be on the lookout for destructive behaviors. Traumatic loss can lead some into depression, alcohol, or drug abuse. They may need an extra eye on them while things are especially tough.

Remember that humor can be a good diversion. Laughter is good medicine. And as Bill Cosby said, whose son was tragically killed, “Through humor you can soften some of the worst blows that life delivers. And once you find laughter, no matter how painful your situation might be, you can survive it.”

Be willing to do the difficult things with your friend. Maybe they need someone to go to court with them, or a safe space to rage. Or help with the funeral or afterwards.

Learn about grief. Read books that are helpful or articles such as the ones on my website: www.griefspeaks.com  as well as order the two books listed below.

Help your friend find support and inspiration. No one friend can be the entire support system to a griever.  Encourage him or her to create a support network which may include other friends, a religious group, a support group, on-line support, relatives and more. Encourage healthy outlets too such as exercise, writing, art, meditation, yoga etc. Know that often a poem or song will speak to your friend in ways that no one else can. Talking to someone in a support group that also lost someone in tragic way may also help them to know that they are not alone. Find a list of support groups on: www.selfhelpgroups.org 

Have patience and confidence that your friend will eventually begin to heal. And also know that they will grieve for the rest of their lives. Some days will be better than others. One day they hope to reach a point when the good days outnumber the bad. That will be a major milestone.

Two wonderful books: What To Do After the Police Leave - A Guide to the First Days of Traumatic Loss by Bill Jenkins (filled with simple, frank and useful advice vital to families suffering a traumatic loss. Written by a father whose 16 year old son was killed in a robbery while working his second night at a restaurant). Good book for months later as well.

A Grief Like No Other: Surviving the Violent Death of Someone You Love  by Kathleen O'Hara.  A Therapist and mother whose college-aged son was murdered. This book which focuses on violent death including suicide, drug overdose, and death by homicide and drunk drivers, is a great resource for families. This book finds real answers to the most difficult question of all: How do I go on after losing someone I love to violence?

I hope that this will help you to be of greater support the next time someone you know unfortunately might need it. 

Please Think Twice Before Handing a Crying Person a Tissue — Lisa Athan

Please think twice before handing a crying person a tissue! When you hand someone who is crying a tissue the person almost always stops crying. Being a grief counselor and grief educator I have come to know about the value of allowing people to express their feelings and crying is often a way that many express grief of some sort.

Imagine that you are sitting in with a group and one person sharing about a loss in their life begins to cry or you are speaking with a friend who begins to tear as they share with you something difficult that they are going through with a loved one or themselves. Your immediate impulse may be to hand them a tissue. So you go in search of one. You break eye contact, stop fully listening, and rummage for a tissue in your bag, or you start looking around the room. Maybe you interrupt them to ask someone else for a tissue. You may even get up from your seat and get one, all in an effort to "support" your friend. You hand the tissue to them and now they (maybe suddenly feeling self conscious) wipe their tears and blow their nose...and if you count to three, chances are they have stopped crying.

I don't want people to stop their tears if they are allowing them to them flow. I feel good that someone trusts me enough to well up with emotion and let it spill out. I am aware of the heavy toll we pay for keeping it all locked inside, the pressure many feel to "keep it all together and look strong" most of the time. I think that when we hand a tissue, we are really saying, "Please stop crying, as you are making me very uncomfortable. Your tears are getting me in touch with my own pain, and I am afraid that l may cry as well." Or you might be thinking, "When you cry I feel helpless, which makes me uncomfortable. I want to fix your pain, although I know that I can't. So let me stop you from expressing that pain, so that I can feel more comfortable."

Next time you see someone crying, just sit with them, be present and listen. No need to offer tissues or try to "fix them." After all, that is what sleeves are for. Someone crying often doesn't need anything except someone to be with them. Crying can be quite healthy for our immune system. Please remember that tears are part of the healing, not the hurting. Maybe this is the very first time that he or she feels safe enough to cry. I am glad they are feeling safe enough with me to cry. Let the tears flow. Please, try it out and watch the next time someone offers a crying person a tissue.

And by the way, hugging or touching a crying person may act the same way that the tissue does, to unintentionally stifle the person's feelings. Hugs are welcomed and can be very important and healing, but often not necessarily when a person is expressing feelings. Plus not everyone welcomes touch when they are upset. It is always best to ask, but only after they have gotten out what they need to get out.  I always ask my audiences how many like to be touched when upset and how many don't. You would be surprised at how many do not appreciate a touch when they are expressing their emotions. I like to remind people that what is comforting to you may not be comforting for another. It is always good to be aware of why we do the things we do and ask ourselves this important question: "Is what I am about to do for their benefit or is it for my own?" In other words, to help them feel better or to make myself feel better.

The most important thing we can do for someone who is sad or grieving is to be present and truly listen, nothing more, nothing less.

A great book, my all-time favorite as a gift for a grieving person is Tear Soup by Pat Schwiebert.  Here is a quote from that book:  "Grandy knew she had to make much of this part of the soup alone. She learned from past experiences that most people don't like being around tears. Her friend would worry if they knew just how many tears Grandy's recipe callef for this time. So, the old and somewhat wise woman relected on her own special recipe as she looked down into the large overflowing pot of memories. It was a task she would repeat many times during the next few months."

Ways to Comfort a Grieving Person — Lisa Athan 

Accept that you can’t fix it, and please stop trying. We may so wish that we could take away the pain of grief, but unless you have a miracle, you can’t. It is when people think they can fix the problem that they say or do things that cause more pain for the bereaved.

Go to the viewing, wake or service. This is an important time for friends, co-workers, neighbors and relatives to express their condolences to the bereaved. Sign the guest registry if there is one. Months and years later family enjoys seeing who came. Share a story or memory of the person. It is okay to share a funny memory, as laughter can be quite healing.  If you can’t attend, please send a handwritten note. Often obituaries point you to the deceased’s favorite charity. No charity tells how much you gave, only that you did.

Just say you are sorry for their loss.  Leave statements such as, “she is in a better place”, “God never gives more than we can handle”, “Everything happens for a reason”. Sometimes these words can be very painful for grievers to hear. Please don’t congratulate someone on “doing so well”. That often makes them feel guilty when they are expressing their grief outwardly. This often encourages the bereaved to become Academy Award winning actors and actresses.  Remember that saying less is best, but nothing is worse.

Let them cry. Listen and just be there with them. Crying is good for the immune system.  And if they don’t cry, that is fine too. Please don’t’ go in as the ‘grief police’ judging how people appear to be grieving. What you see on the outside often doesn’t compare to what is going on inside them. The first few days grievers are often in shock anyway. How else could they make all of those difficult plans and decisions that they have to make?

Go ahead and give them a hug, if they seem to want a hug. Not everyone likes to be touched when they are sad. However many will welcome a hug over a lot of empty words. The simple touch says that you care.

Weeks after the funeral, when most have gone back to their lives, the bereaved are often feeling lonely. This can be a good time to visit. Call and ask if it okay. Bring a snack or offer to take them out for a cup of coffee or dinner.  Most grievers really appreciate it when people keep coming around, that is unless you are a member of the grief police.  Offering to take on a task is also a nice thing to do: shopping, childcare, pet care, or doing an errand, like getting groceries which often is one of the hardest places to visit especially if a parent has lost a child. There are so many reminders in the aisles. But, please don't make a promise to help or visit if you are not sinccere. Many greivers share how disappointed they were by so many who made empty promises. Only say it if you mean it. 

Create a memory book for the person if you knew many of the friends or family. Collect photos and stories from others and put them all into a scrapbook for the person. This is especially appreciated if there are young children or teens that have lost a loved one. They will treasure reading the stories and memories for years to come.

And don’t forget the holidays. This time of year can be especially difficult for a griever. If you are a close friend or family member you will probably know the most significant days. This is a great time to visit, write, invite them out or send a special card with a memory. Write, ‘I know this holiday must be very hard for you this year. I just wanted to say that I was thinking of you. “

Take care of yourself too. How helpful you are to the bereaved friend or family member if you are tired, run down and stressed? How can you lend a shoulder to cry on, an ear to listen or a hand for helping with meals or moving if you can barely stand yourself? Make sure you are sleeping, eating, making time for family, friends, work and some fun. Remember when you travel, you have to put your oxygen mask on before you can help another.

“Too often we underestimate the power of a touch, a smile, a kind word, a listening ear, an honest compliment, or the smallest act of caring, all of which have the potential to turn a life around.” ~ Leo Buscaglia

Grieving Teens: What Adults Need to Know  — Lisa Athan [printed in the Springfield Patch, 9/28/11]

One of the most common questions I am asked as a grief specialist is about helping a teenager after a loss. Parents often complain that their teens aren't communicating with them, or won't open up to them. Teens often say that they would open up more if their parents weren't so busy judging and criticizing them. Teens share that they feel that their parents are often out of touch, too busy to listen, too controlling or don't respect their privacy. Yet these same kids often want their parents to support them and offer some guidance when they are coping with tough stuff such as a loss. They also need time with friends and time alone. It is hard enough being a teenager, but to have to cope with grief as well can feel overwhelming at times.

Teens are trying to separate from parents and become more independent, yet after a loss they find themselves conflicted. They want to handle it on their own, yet often also want adult support, understanding and patience.

Grieving teens often will say things like, "Life sucks," "This is not fair that I have to go through this," "You don't really care about me," "My life wasn't supposed to turn out this way," etc. It feels unfair to a teen to lose someone close to them through death. Teens feel immortal; deaths of siblings, parents or friends can rock their world. Expectations are high and hormones may be raging. Adults are allowed to take some time off of work, college kids can drop out for a semester but teenagers have to go back to school and keep up the frantic pace of life, even after a loved one or friend has died.

Three feelings that make grief so hard for teens are anger, guilt and shame. They may be angry at the person who died who has now messed up their life. They may feel angry at the person for leaving them, angry at God for letting this bad thing happen, angry at their friends who still may have their loved ones and angry at the world for not getting how hard this is on them.

Teens often complain that their parents are micromanaging their lives. They want to know every move they make. They want to be in constant contact via cell phones. Teens often feel angry when adults treat them differently than they did before the death.

Guilt can cause a lot of pain for grieving teens too. Many teens feel guilty that they didn't spend more time with the person who died or regret that they weren't nicer. One 14 year old boy I met last year shared that he and his dad had a major blow up one night and hours later, his dad suffered a massive heart attack and died. This young man was full of regret that he never got to apologize to his father. I listened. I reminded him that it is normal for teens to fight with their parents and that didn't change the love that he and his dad shared. Sometimes teens feel guilty that they could have prevented the death. A college student shared with me last year that if only she hadn't invited her father to her college for dinner, he never would have been hit by the drunk driver on his way to her.

Shame also can cause much suffering for a teen. Many teens who experience a death feel very alone. Teens often hate feeling different, and losing a parent, sibling or friend can make them feel very different. They don't want to be known as the boy whose dad died or the girl whose sister was killed. This is especially hard when a loved one died by suicide, homicide or if the family member was driving a car in which others were killed.

How can adults help? Let teens know you are there for them, if you are.  "I am here for you, if you want to talk about it. I don't know how you feel." Teens need their losses acknowledged and validated, while at the same time they need reassurance that the intensity of their grief won't last forever. Teen bereavement groups can be great for teens. This will validate their feelings and help them to not feel so alone. Closed, monitored chat rooms online can also be helpful. Adults can really listen to their teens without judgement and refrain from trying to fix them or offer advice too quickly. Try to honor your adolescent's need for the avoidance of intense emotions. Help to create a safe space for your kids to open up and express themselves if they want to. Encourage your teen to have creative outlets. Such things as art, music, exercise, writing, hobbies, being in nature, volunteering, working for a cause, can be very helpful. Encourage them to come up with their own list of activities.

Teens feel their emotions strongly which can also scare them. Teaching them coping skills like breathing or progressive relaxation can help. Encourage them to drink water which is very important during grief. Going for a walk is helpful, or if in school a walk to the bathroom, to throw some cold water on their face, look outside a window, visit the school counselor or nurse. Music, yoga, meditation, prayer or napping are other things teens have shared with me that help. Sometimes screaming into a scream box (how to make a scream box on my website) or into a pillow, crying helps as it even lowers blood pressure, pulse rate and body temperature. Anything healthy that can reduce tension can be a good outlet.

Teens can guide their parents on how to help them by providing a list to parents on what helps. Things on the list may include: Talk about the loss, but in small doses. I want to know that we can talk about the death, that it isn't taboo. Ask me open ended questions, "how have you been since your friend died?"  Tell your parents that you hate lectures, especially when trapped in the car with them. Tell parents to accept what you may be feeling whether it be anger or survivor guilt or the feeling that life isn't fair.  Your parents can say they miss John today, but then just leave it at that.  If your parents need to talk about the loss, set a time limit like 15 minutes or less. Teens want their parents support especially now, when they may be feeling judged and criticized by others including some of their friends. Parents need to learn not to take everything a teen says or does so personally. Teens want some space and some freedom. They hate feeling smothered by parents. Teens want parents to keep talking to them, even if the teen isn't responding, they are still listening.

Many teens will find writing in a journal helpful. I was given about 100 journals written by a 17-year-old girl who lost her brother three years ago. She wanted to create a small journal for kids who also lost a loved one, so that they can grieve in the privacy of their own space and time. If you would like a copy let me know. It is called The Healing Jar. Some teens write letters to the person who died. They can read it at the cemetery, keep the letters, share with a counselor or friend, tie it to a helium balloon and let it go, call a hotline like 2nd Floor (888-222-2228) and speak anonymously to a trained counselor or visit their site: www.2ndfloor.org, make a collage of pictures and words from a magazine, that remind them of their loss.  Spend time with people who knew the person well who also want to talk about them. Some teens will find visiting with a deceased friend's family or friends helpful. Some will post memories on their person's Facebook page. Many parents who have lost teens or young adults share with me how touching it is for them to read the memories shared on Facebook. One mom told me that last Thanksgiving she was so comforted by one of her daughter's friends who had written on her Facebook Memorial Page, to her and her husband that she were thinking of them on that first Thanksgiving without "Karen". Her daughter, "Karen", had been killed in a motor vehicle accident a few months earlier. 

Teens often don't want to cry in front of others. Some teens try to forget about it and act like nothing happened and want to have fun again. Often this is followed by a feeling of guilt. Teens worry about having too little control over their emotions and wonder if their feelings are normal and which ones may mean they need help.

Teens can make a list of people to call or text if they need to talk. These are safe adults who will listen without judgement and who can offer helpful advice when needed. Teens can list a few places that make them feel safe. They can list a few activities that help them to feel better. They can list a few affirmations or statements that can help them get through the rough times.

Eventually teens may find or make meaning from their loss. Some teens who have lost a friend to drunk driving may become involved in MADD (Mothers Against Drunk Driving). Some will join a support group like Compassionate Friends (for bereaved parents and siblings). Some teens will start a group at school and educate their peers about whatever it was their person died of. Others' may start a 5K run in memory of a friend or loved one.

Teens find ways to keep those connections to the person who died. Some listen to their person's favorite music, TV show or eat a favorite meal. Sometimes teens talk about a place their loved one liked so when ever they are at the beach they think of them. This summer while I ran the sharing circles at Camp Clover, a free, week long bereavement day camp, many teens shared about feeling their loved one was always near them or watching over them which helped them a lot.

Two weeks ago I was flown out to Minnesota to help support a grieving family and community who had lost a caring and loving ten year old little girl through a tragic accident this past July.  I did presentations to all of the students K-12, as well as the faculty and adults in the community.  I heard many of the students share that they will always miss yet feel a connection to their dear friend Kenzie, whenever they treat another child with kindness as she was always so nice to everyone. They also said she loved life and many wore green, glow in the dark rubber bracelets that read: Live, Love and Laugh Like Kenzie Raeh. What a wonderful way to keep connected to the memory of their dear friend. I am still wearing the one they gave to me. Whenever I notice it, although I never met Kenzie, I remember the wonderful stories about this precious ten year old who touched many, many lives in her ten short years and she inspires me to be a little kinder. Also reminds me to never take anything for granted.

More ways to keep the connection:

Go to their favorite restaurant or cook their favorite meal. Celebrate their birthday with family and friends. Write songs or poems about them. On the anniversary of the person's death, spend the day doing things they enjoyed doing. Create Web pages in their honor. Burn CD's with their favorite songs or make a play list and share with friends and family. Volunteer for an organization or cause your loved one believed in. Wear something that was theirs or carry it in your pocket. And perhaps to celebrate your person's life, do something you've always wanted to do but haven't yet done.


"It's like your in a foreign country now and you were just dropped there, and now you have to learn to make yourself adapt to this new world and this new way of life, and it's not easy." Lauren and Kerri Keifer, who lost their older brother, a firefighter who was murdered in the September 11th World Trade Center attacks, said.

Helpful books on grieving teens:

The Grieving Teen: A Guide for Teenagers and Their Friends

Teen Grief Relief: Parenting with Understanding, Support and Guidance by Dr. Heidi Horsely and Dr. Gloria Horsley

Grief is No Cliche  — Lisa Athan [Printed on NJ.Com]

When we don't know what to say to someone who has suffered a loss, we may be tempted to turn to an old, worn-out cliche. But in our attempt to be helpful, we may wind up saying something hurtful and leave the person feeling more pain or frustration.

Here are some common phrases that participants hear all too often and share with me at my workshops on grief and loss.

"I know how you feel". No, you do not know how anyone else feels. This statement only makes people angry and may shut them down from sharing exactly how they do feel. Everyone has his or her own feelings. Even if you went through something similar, it still gives you no right to tell someone that you know how he or she feels. Just acknowledge their feelings and listen to their unique story.

"It's God's Will": This may be your belief but you don't know what the griever believes or how he or she feels about God at this moment. Many people grow in faith after a loss but others get angry at God, question their beliefs, or lose faith completely. Many can't accept this terrible loss as part of a caring God's will. Keep this thought to yourself.

"Your loved one is in a better place. They don't have to suffer anymore." The griever already knows that the loved one isn't suffering anymore, but they are! They are left to often feel selfish for their own suffering. They also may question, 'how can my child, spouse, parent' be in any place better than here with me? Children in particular have trouble wondering why a parent would leave them to go to a better place, or wonder how they failed in making this a good enough place. Also don't assume that others share your belief in a "better place." This statement causes so much pain to so many.

"You have to be strong." This is often told to children, and to adults caring for children. Many people don't feel strong after a loss and find it hard enough to be strong enough to make it through each day, let alone worry about being strong for others. People hear this as "don't cry," or "show any emotion." This can be very damaging and stop the grieving process. It may also imply that no one will be there to support them in their pain and sorrow.

"Keep your chin up." When all a person may want to do is cry, scream, yell, sob, rage and collapse, they do not need someone to tell them to stop all of that emotion and just carry on as before. It is important to grieve and mourn.

"You had many great years together. You should be grateful." Many would give anything, make any bargain, to have more years together. Grateful may be the last thing they feel at this time. There are also people who did not have great years, and we can't assume always that they did. Some people had abusive relationships that seemed great, but they actually lived a secret life. These folks often are left to feel more alone and isolated in their pain.

Please don't tell people how they should feel. Listen instead to how they do feel and acknowledge that. Remember that our quiet presence is a gift to a griever, and often doesn't require a lot of words. Allow those around you to grieve, and they will allow you the same when it is your time.

Children Do Grieve  — Lisa Athan [Posted on NJ.Com in 2008]

Grief is an expression of love. If a child can love, he or she can grieve. Children are used to having a full range of emotions. Think about a three year old throwing himself on the floor in the grocery store. He is angry and shows the world his feelings. Children know what it is to feel angry, sad, afraid, lonely and confused and have no difficulty expressing it. So why should children experiencing loss through death of a loved one, behave any differently.

Children have different responses to grief based on such things as: their relationship with the person who died, their understanding of death, their developmental level, the circumstances of the death, and the ability of the adults around them to be present, communicate and support them emotionally.

Some children want to talk about their loss all the time, others not at all, and many somewhere in between. Some won't talk about their loss until months or years later. Some children will only remember wonderful things about the person, others may hate them for leaving and abandoning them. Some children sob uncontrollably, while others appear to be without emotion. Some may even laugh and act uncaring. Some will feel guilt as they blame themselves for the death and may get themselves into trouble so that they can be punished. Some will blame others or God, the doctor, the funeral director or family members. Anger is a common emotion in grief. We can listen and help children find healthy outlets for their anger, such as writing, drawing, talking, music, art, exercise, ripping up old phone books, or punching a punching bag.

Children grieve in spurts. They can only be with intense feelings for a short duration before needing distractions or breaks. A child may cry or be angry and then want to go out and play ball and laugh. Children's reactions are all different. Grief does not move through stages nor is there a timetable. Children also don't want people to feel sorry for them or to treat them differently. Children often act out their grief through their behavior more than through words.

Sometimes well meaning adults say unhelpful and hurtful things to grieving children such as, "Be strong. Don't cry. You are now the man of the house. It is time you move on." This only adds to feelings of isolation, lonliness, and even shame within the child.

It is helpful to allow children to cry. Sobbing can even help children express their despair,as they move from shock into realization that their loved one will not be returning. Adults can model healthy grieving and mourning. It is okay to cry in front of children. Many families say the most connected they felt to each other was when they all cried together.

Rabbi Earl Grollman, author of Bereaved Children and Teens wrote," Grief is not a disorder, a disease, or a sign of weakness. It is an emotional, physical, and spiritual necessity- the price you pay for love." Adults need to companion children on their grief journey's and to grant young people permission and safety to grieve and together find healthy ways to mourn.

What Period is Grief Class? — Lisa Athan

Loss is a part of life. We lose relationships, people we love, things, dreams, abilities, trust and more, yet we rarely are formally taught about grief and loss. I am amazed that we don't teach grief and loss in schools, although our children are grieving and sometimes turning to unhealthy means to deal with their grief. I believe that grief underlies many of the current youth issues today. 

One of the things I do as a grief educator is to go into classrooms and speak to students about grief and loss. I often hear students say, "finally, a talk about something that we all can relate to. Why don't we talk about things like this more often in school?" I tell them that I wonder too. I know that children in school deal with loss on a daily basis. They lose friends, pets die, have a sibling with autism, have a grandparent with Alzheimer's or struggle with a learning disability. Others may get bullied, rejected, deal with ill family members, addiction in the family or deal with parents' divorce, just to name a few examples.

Students ask me how they can help themselves as well as their friends, siblings, and parents. They want to know what is normal in grief and how does one live through such pain without turning to addictions. They talk about guilt and regret, ask if it is normal to never cry or cry a lot, and wonder if numbness is normal. Others ask me how to help a friend who is in trouble but refuses help, what to say to a friend who has a dying parent, and ask for healthy ways to express feelings like anger and rage.

Many students say that these are great classes because they are relevant and real. One student wrote, "I feel like death and grieving are taboo in our culture. It really helps to hear someone talk about it and how to cope and help a friend." Another wrote, "I think children should take grief classes from the time they are a small child until graduating high school, if not longer."

Grief and loss education would allow children to grow up with useful knowledge, tools, and an emotional vocabulary. Empathy, patience, tolerance and compassion would be units as well as coping skills and healthy mourning. Students would learn about integrating loss, meaning making and growth that often follow loss. Imagine the difference schools could make if grief and loss education was part of the standard curriculum.

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