IN ENGLAND, we are not terribly good at adult grief, let alone
the tragic death of children and young people. We have all heard
stories from the bereaved of people who have crossed the road so
that they do not have to talk to them, or expect them to be back at
work, having "got over it" within a few days. We know about their
loneliness first hand.
A consultant paediatrician, Richard Wilson, has suggested a
model of grief called "the whirlpool". He sees the river of life
running along smoothly, until it suddenly falls over the cliff-edge
of loss. "The waterfall of bereavement, when the river turns into
individual droplets of water thrown out in all directions, is a
state of shock, numbness, and denial.
"Then the chaotic water hits the pool below and forms a
whirlpool of grief - a state of falling apart or emotional chaos.
The water can hit the rocks around the pool, producing pain and
physical symptoms in the griever. Or it can wash up on the opposite
bank and stay stuck there. But eventually, the water from the
whirlpool flows on through mourning to an acceptance that loss is
real, but life can carry on" (quoted in Healing Grief by
Barbara Ward, Vermilion, 1993).
The advantage of this model for me, as a school chaplain, is
that it reflects the emotional chaos of grief, and if you recollect
the emotional chaos of being a teenager, then you can recognise
that, because teenagers are more used to turbulent waters than
adults are, they often handle grief better than adults do.
Grief is emotional rather than mental. For a teenager, this is
even more so. If we are 80 per cent feelings and 20 per cent mind,
then you do not need to worry if your feelings do not make
ONE teenager, whose best friend had died suddenly, told me that
his feelings came in huge waves; so we explored that image, and I
encouraged him not to fear those waves. Visualise Cornwall and a
surfing beach: two things can happen with waves that are so big:
you can tumble into them and go with the flow, or you might be able
to ride them. The more practice you get, the more you will be able
to ride them.
If the waves represent overwhelming feelings of emotion, the
most emotionally healthy way to deal with them is to allow yourself
to "feel" them, and teenagers are surprisingly good at doing this.
Boys will often be quite happy to cry a great deal, and they should
be allowed and encouraged to do so.
They will use Facebook a lot. It gives them a way to express
themselves, and a way to share with others how they are feeling.
They set up RIP pages and post old photos and videos. They also
make magnificent gestures of love: organising sponsored bike rides,
raising money for charity, writing to their friends' football club,
setting up a memorial.
They get angry with "randomers", who seem to piggyback on the
wave of emotion, and they often get angry with parents, and don't
want to talk. But that is OK. Anger is part of grief, and it is
part of being a teenager. You can be fairly sure that teenagers are
talking to each other.
HERE are a few practical ideas for families. Try to do as much
"normal" as you can manage: food on the table; chores around the
house; family stuff. It is OK to talk to the dead friend as if he
or she were still around. At night, give thanks for blessings that
have happened during the day. Even after something traumatic, we
are blessed, and it helps to recognise this. Then, name all the
pain and sorrow, and bundle it up in a huge helium balloon and send
it up to God.
As a priest, there are a couple of things we do particularly
well. We can talk about the big questions without embarrassment.
And we can put on a fantastic funeral. Teenagers want to know if
they will meet their friend again in heaven (yes); they want to
know if it is a problem that they will be so much older than their
friend (no); and they probably will want to know why God let this
Don't be afraid to be clear. God is love; God has created the
world; death and disease are part of that world; and, through the
love of friends and family, God's love can be shown on earth. Life
does not end with death, and God wants to bring each one of us
home. It is a slightly kinder version of "Stuff happens." Teenagers
understand that, because they have so little control of their
FOR THE funerals of young people, many bereaved families now ask
for a small "private" service, followed by a large memorial
service. But seeing the coffin at the funeral is really important
for young friends; so try to allow as many to come as want to.
If one has counselled the parents of a young person who has
died, the temptation is to plan the service from the family's
perspective, which - theologically speaking - focuses on the
anguish of crucifixion. If we see the funeral from the perspective
of the teenagers, however, an emphasis on pain simply leads to the
response "We can go out and do whatever we want in life, and live
it large, because tomorrow may never come."
Instead, why not tackle the short life of the teenager directly
and reflect on the gifts of the Holy Spirit which that person
brought to those who knew him or her? Give those who are left a
blueprint for life now. And try and give a sense that, whatever the
span of days we have, we have the opportunity to be someone
In the face of the traumatic death of teenagers, many adults are
left feeling helpless. Teenagers themselves are probably much
better at dealing with it than adults are because they are used to
emotional chaos and because of the way they use social media to
share and to remember. And yet it is also a time when they find
that faith matters, and they are willing and able to talk about
these things with someone who "knows". The rest of us need to be
The Revd Dr Tess Kuin Lawton is Chaplain of Magdalen College