Teen deserves honest talk about death


November 16, 1993|By Dr. Modena Wilson and Dr. Alain Joffe | Dr. Modena Wilson and Dr. Alain Joffe,Contributing Writers

Q: What's the best way to talk to a teen-ager about the death of a loved one? My daughter seems to be having a hard time with the death of her grandfather.

A: At this point in her life (even if she's only 13 or 14), your daughter probably has a fully developed sense of death. She can benefit from open and honest discussions about this impact her grandfather's death is having on the family as a whole.

If you can, share your thoughts and feelings about his death with her.

Given their psychological makeup, teen-agers often assume that the emotions they experience are more powerful than those experienced by anyone else. She will likely derive comfort from knowing that other people have emotions similar to hers.

If your feelings about his death are still too overwhelming, make sure that your daughter has the opportunity to talk to another adult. This can be another family member or a friend, a religious leader or a physician.

Don't clamp down on discussions in an attempt to better handle your own emotions.

Many teen-agers, like many adults, harbor surprising emotions about the death of a close relative. She may feel a sense of guilt or responsibility for his death: Perhaps she believes that had she been more helpful to him while he was alive, she could somehow have prevented his death. She also may believe that she should have been attentive to him and less concerned about her own social life.

During the process of identity development, teen-agers often distance themselves from parents but turn to another adult for emotional support. If she had been getting that support from her grandfather, this may help to explain her strong feelings. In addition, she may feel abandoned and angry at this loss of support.

In general, the grieving process is most intense during the month following the death but can last longer. While she is grieving, she may display difficulties sleeping, eating or paying attention in school. If these behaviors persist for more than a few months, professional help may be necessary.

Remember, too, that anniversary reactions may occur long after your daughter appears to have resolved her feelings.

Dr. Wilson is director of general pediatrics at the Johns Hopkins Children's Center; Dr. Joffe is director of adolescent medicine.

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