Questions from Teens After the Loss of a Parent
By Sheryl Cohen
Overview: In this article Sheryl Cohen, a psychologist, answers some questions that many teens ask after the loss of a parent or someone close to them.

There are no straightforward answers to grief. Like a fingerprint, each person will have their own style of grieving. Nevertheless, there are some general trends, or a common thread that is noticed by psychologists on the grief process. Based upon these trends, I hope to share with you some suggestions. But I don’t have the answers. 

Q1. Will I ever feel normal again? I have a lot of moments especially with my friends that I feel normal and have fun, but I always seem to get triggered and then I feel so alone and can’t believe this is now my life. 

A1. The wave of sadness; shock; anger; distress are called “grief ambush”. They are unpredictable, unwelcomed, overwhelming feelings which knock you off your feet. Sometimes they are triggered by even the smallest things, and sometimes not at all. The ambush leaves one feeling drained; empty; alone and sad. For many, grief is also expressed in irritable mood or anger. This is a normal response to what feels like an abnormal experience.  Be gentle on yourself. The episodes do pass. Its like peeling an onion: at first your eyes water; then the onion develops a “skin”; until the next time you peel it again…. 

Q2. Sometimes I wake up in the night and can’t go back to sleep. I panic when I remember again that  Mom died. How do I deal with this? 

A2. Sleep disturbance is commonly associated with stress and distress. When you’re awake, your central nervous system is activated as you realise Mom died. This increases adrenaline, which is going to wake you up and keep you up. The trick here is to activate the para-sympathetic nervous system which calms down your central nervous system, so you can relax and self-soothe.  Then sleep is more viable. As such, you might benefit from some “brain-body training”. Work out what assists you in getting to sleep? Then use those strategies.  Perhaps its warm camomile tea before bed; a warm bath; reading; breathing exercises etc. Use these strategies to get to sleep and then again (if appropriate) to put yourself back to sleep. Keep a good sleep routine. That’s called “sleep hygiene”. And then if all fails, if you are up: take the pressure off and get up, and do something. Just do the “next best thing”. 

Q3. Why do I feel so scared since I lost my Dad?

A3. The loss of a parent is scary. It touches ones deepest vulnerabilities. When you depend on your parents for your emotional and instrumental needs, then the loss is exaggerated. The more dependent you are, the greater the loss. For many children, loosing one parent leads to the feeling of loosing both. This is because the “other parent” is often consumed by a new role: managing the family; manging money; managing things they are not used to doing. The adjustment is hard. The change is often unwelcomed. It’s a process. Families can pull together in such circumstances and when they do, it creates some “gains” in the loss. Keep channels of communication with your parent; siblings or extended family open. Let them know how you feel and what you need. Ask them too: what do you feel and what do you need from me?

Q4. Why do I sometimes feel so numb? 

A4. You can’t grieve all day, every day. While you may feel a pit in your stomach all day, you can allow yourself to have fun and some good times too. Sometimes we have expectations that we should be “sad” at all times. This isn’t possible. You might laugh out loud at times – even at things you remember about your lost loved one. Numbness is the bodies’ way of saying “I’m overwhelmed by my feelings sometimes”. It’s part of the process. 

Q5. I don’t know if I should talk about how I feel or if I should keep it to myself? Every time I try and tell my best friend or my grandmother how I’m feeling I can see they feel uncomfortable and usually I leave the conversation feeling worse. 

A5. It’s important to share your feelings. Sharing, however, can unsettle those who are listening. Choose wisely. Perhaps you will need to find a person who can be your “go to”. Not forever, but for now. There is a “secondary loss” when you feel that those you love aren’t able to “hold” your distress in mind. You can share that feeling with that person too. But: at the right time and in the right way. Sometimes, it’s not because the significant other isn’t willing to emotionally support you, it’s because their cup is full of grief too. And full is full. Emptying your cup with a therapist is a good start. 

Q6. My Mom is not coping since my Dad died. All she does is cry. I feel like I am now the mother in the house. I don’t want to be, but no one else is looking after my younger siblings? I feel responsible for them.

A6. When death happens, roles change. It would be helpful to enrol the expertise of a therapist who can hold a family meeting to discuss roles and expectations.

Q7. What do I say when people ask me how I am? I mean it’s such a stupid question as my Mom died 8 months ago but they expect me to answer. 

A7. Social etiquette is formality. Its infuriating because there is no context for answering honestly. If we stick to the social etiquette but maintain honesty, it might sound something like: “that’s a hard question to answer”.

Q8. I feel like the pain is still so big and it’s nearly been a year! People keep telling me it will get better and time is a healer but I don’t believe them and I don’t see evidence of that.

A8. It’s a myth. The loss of a parent is catastrophic. It’s not that the pain gets less, it’s that life around the pain gets bigger. It’s important to build that life too: keeping social contact; keep exercising; eating well and taking care of yourself.

Sheryl Cohen
Sheryl cohen is a psychologist who specializes in working with children, teens and parents. She was the vice chair of KIDSAFE SA, which focused on prevention of child abuse in Jewish community. She was also vice chair of Yeshiva College Board for 23 years. She set up the YES centre which is a therapy centre with 12 therapists from 6 different disciplines. She has worked in private practise for 30 years. She lives in Johannesburg with her husband and 4 children.