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How teens can deal well with death

22 August 2014

Young people often confront their grief better than adults, says Tess Kuin Lawton


Good grief: well-wishers pay their respects at a vigil in Lichfield Cathedral for Stephen Sutton, who died, aged 19, from cancer, in May

Good grief: well-wishers pay their respects at a vigil in Lichfield Cathedral for Stephen Sutton, who died, aged 19, from cancer, in May

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 sense.

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 happen.

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 lives.

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 wonderful.

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 prepared.

The Revd Dr Tess Kuin Lawton is Chaplain of Magdalen College School, Oxford.

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