Death + Older Children
September 8, 2018 12:09 AM   Subscribe

As a parent, I could use some tips for explaning/dealing with death and your older child. There are so many resources for explaining death to young children, but what about your older teen, who is old enough to really grasp the horror?

As a family, we're watching the last days unfold for one of our dearest, closest friends -- way too early, from cancer. This is someone who has been part of my 15yo child's close circle his whole life long.

He gets it -- he gets how much it sucks, how much pain and suffering is involved. Even worse, he sees that another family very much shaped like ours (mom + dad + a teenager) is being rocked. He sees that another teenager is losing their parent, which is consequently terrifying and bringing up all his own fears of death and abandonment.

How do you help a kid work through this? He's too old to read a children's book about dying. And also he already understands dying -- we've had older relatives die (after a long and happy life), and seen another child die (suddenly, in an accident). But this is scary and awful and I can't give him platitudes like "Don't worry, Mom and Dad won't die until they're quite old" because he's old enough to know that's not true.

posted by anonymous to Human Relations (18 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
I mean, there’s a book called Trauma Proofing Your Kids that deals with healthy ways to help your teen process real life...

My BEST advice is to get a practice together with your teen, or get them involved in one on their own. Something that includes exercise, breathwork or lots of breathing techniques, and some form of meditation or meditative state. I know that seems daft, but stay with me...

This is your opportunity to teach a lifelong skill for dealing with everything life entails. We need tools. An effective practice is something our kids can rely on forever, they will always have it in their toolkit to rely on if we teach it.

Some people I know are regular hikers or surfers, I think spin class or roadbike cycling does this. Yoga is incredibly effective. Baseball done the right way fills the meditation part, it excludes heavy or directed breathing.

Research it. Find a strategy that fits for yours (this includes you, you are also processing your friend’s passing.)

Thank you for asking this question and sharing. I have been through this and you are wise to reach out.
posted by jbenben at 1:36 AM on September 8, 2018

So, I always tell people the biggest predictor to recovery from trauma is having a support system and people who care.

Really, that is what creates resiliency. Being there and talking is usually all people need .

He's going to have to think things through and figure how what this means to him and how he views the world. Some adults do this through faith, some make peace through the science of nature, some just get angry about it and try to ignore it. People find what works for them by exploring with others through conversation, through shared rituals, through experiencing life.

Feelings are natural and normal. This is hard. But how he acts when he feels this way is what is important. Focusing on relationships, talking, seaking support, and meditation , are all healthy options. Some people chose to ignore, deny, suppress which is not healthy long term.

If he choses to act in a way that's concerning then mental health services are available, please utalize them. But for now, sitting with him and helping him think through and contextualize this is absolutely something you can and should do.
posted by AlexiaSky at 4:22 AM on September 8, 2018 [6 favorites]

I'm sorry for your impending loss and the heartbreak it is bringing. I caution you, however, not to sending the message to your child that death is a horror. Death is sad, but a part of life and rarely a horror.
posted by Dolley at 6:01 AM on September 8, 2018 [19 favorites]

Don't look for ways to 'explain' it to him - give him space and permission to talk to you guys about what he's feeling.
posted by showbiz_liz at 6:26 AM on September 8, 2018 [3 favorites]

I think that this actual experience will be the biggest resource your son will draw upon later in life. How are you guys as a family processing things? Are you having regular conversations about it ? Are you super familiar with the grieving process? The book when breathe becomes air by Paul kalanathi is a really good memoir by someone dying of cancer. Being Mortal by atul Gawande is so good also.
posted by pintapicasso at 6:31 AM on September 8, 2018 [3 favorites]

I don't think there's much you can do. Death is part of life and he's old enough to start processing it. Also, this is illness, which is comprehensible, though hard. I grew up knowing almost my entire extended family, and the families of most of the people I knew, were all killed in concentration camps. I am not traumatized by death, and I wasn't as a child, even in this extreme case. And the deaths of those close to me by illness or accident, while very sad, didnt have any tinge of 'horror'-- kids are capable of accepting things and bringing them into their worldview without too much fuss or trauma, beyond the normal process of grief and sadness and loss. Sorry you are all going through this. Kids are resilient and I'm sure he'll be fine.
posted by thegreatfleecircus at 6:45 AM on September 8, 2018 [2 favorites]

I caution you, however, not to sending the message to your child that death is a horror. Death is sad, but a part of life and rarely a horror.

I have no business cautioning anybody, but I recommend never pretending away the truth to a distraught teenager, and never assuming that what they perceive and believe is a simple sum of all the "messages" you send them. Horror is an emotion, not a distasteful ideology. It is an emotion you may want to keep to yourself out of decorum, and it is one that your child may not benefit by stirring up through too much discussion. but it is not a position to be educated out of. being told by your parents that what you can see with your own eyes isn't really what's happening, or that atrocious, obscene, and terrifying things are merely "sad", is, in its own way, peculiarly...horrible.

you can't be destroyed by every death, as you can't be moved by every birth. but feeling the real significance of it is not an error. Dwelling on it is bad for you, but unhealthy does not mean untrue. teenagers can understand this.

It is true that there's nothing to explain to your child. Because what do you know that they don't? You might as well ask them to explain it to you.
posted by queenofbithynia at 6:52 AM on September 8, 2018 [20 favorites]

Death is real. But so is love. One of them is inevitable, the other less so. Tell your kids that the best way to handle death, and thus life, is to love and be loved. Teach them their feelings are valid, that other people's feelings are just as real as theirs, and that the most important thing you can do with someone who is hurting is to be there -- be present -- for them and with them.

I disagree with the statement that horror is bad. Horror is real, the feeling is.

I lost my mother to a years-long progression of cancer when I was in my late teens and early 20s. What helped me was people who were present for me. Not always in my face, offering to do whatever or give me whatever, but just hanging out and being available for companionship. When someone dies there's a hole, and though no one ever fills that particular hole again, if there's less emptiness elsewhere, coping is easier.

That's all I got.
posted by seanmpuckett at 7:27 AM on September 8, 2018 [3 favorites]

Something I have started doing with friends is listening to audiobooks together. We do this when visiting if we have run out of conversation, or if we are taking long car rides. It has been wonderful, as you can tune in or tune out and absorb just as much as you like. If your family does something like this already, or could see yourself doing this, I would recommend the following two audiobooks. (I think that 15 years old is that crossover age where you are able to move into select adult resources.)

I have both of these on my bookshelf, and pull them out anytime I am facing something truly challenging, for example, when my father was dying. Pema Chodron is a buddhist nun, but her books are truly universal and beyond religion, and they really go into the horribleness of what life sends us, and offers solace, without any sentimentality or quick fixes. She is truly a national treasure.

The Places that Scare You by Pema Chodron
When Things Fall Apart by Pema Chodron
posted by nanook at 8:20 AM on September 8, 2018 [1 favorite]

Victoria Hospice has some really helpful brochures, and is always my first recommendation for information on healthy grieving. On that page they have links to (pdf) Child and Teen Grief: Information for Parents and Caregivers and some suggestions for (pdf) Internet Resources for Teens.
posted by lazuli at 8:41 AM on September 8, 2018 [1 favorite]

Re the horror - clearly a valid emotion but not everybody will feel horror in this situation, he may have a range of other reactions, all valid.

This is one of those times, where people will feel what they feel and as this is the first time he faces that kind of situation just encourage him to talk to you and be available to talk to. You are of course right, you will not be able to tell him what you would have told a younger child. You will have to be honest, it is painful and scary, yes, it does remind you of your own mortality and appreciate the people you love more consciously. And you have to explain how you deal with those emotions. And some of that is just sitting with these feelings for a bit. Grief is one of those processes, that can’t be rushed.

Share the tools you have found to help you deal with such experiences. Encourage him to try different things to see what works for him.

Make sure he understands the difference between healthy and unhealthy coping strategies.

If he is friends with the other teenager help him work through what being a friend may mean in this situation.
posted by koahiatamadl at 8:44 AM on September 8, 2018 [3 favorites]

Gilda's Club / Cancer Support Community has locations worldwide and online resources offering support to those impacted by cancer. It is my understanding (but I don't have direct experience) that they help not only persons with cancer but also their loved ones, and not only people dealing with a loss to cancer but also those anticipating such a loss. Perhaps they can help your teen?
posted by Boogiechild at 8:56 AM on September 8, 2018

A Grief Observed by C. S. Lewis
The book is compiled from the four notebooks used by Lewis to vent and explore his grief. He illustrates the everyday trials of his life without Joy [his wife] and explores fundamental questions of faith and theodicy. Lewis' stepson (Joy's son) Douglas Gresham points out in his 1994 introduction that the indefinite article 'a' in the title makes it clear that Lewis' grief is not the quintessential grief experience at the loss of a loved one but rather one individual's perspective, among countless others.
posted by Fukiyama at 9:11 AM on September 8, 2018 [2 favorites]

Re the horror - clearly a valid emotion but not everybody will feel horror in this situation, he may have a range of other reactions, all valid.

Exactly, and this is very important. My mom died last year (I am not a teenager) and it was difficult but it was in no way a horror. This is my own way of managing the topic/event/passage. However, for other people it was. However, what was very difficult was people telling me how awful things were or basically invalidating my own emotional journey (i.e. if I did NOT think it was a horror, I was some sort of unfeeling person who didn't care). It's very difficult to "make space" for other people's feelings when you are managing your own feelings but, in short, people experience grief incredibly differently (though there are the stages we all know).

So if your child is truly terrified, that is worth approaching as that, but it may take some gentle probing to try to figure out just what they feel. Sometimes it's good to have older kids have someone to talk to who is not also being affected by the person's death. Could be a therapist but could also be a scout leader, a family friend, someone from church or someone from a job. Kids take their cues from us and sometimes it can be hard for them to process their own emotions when they are looking around them wondering if what they are thinking or feeling is the right thing to think or feel.

I really think the advice about healthy and unhealthy approaches to managing feelings is a good one. Teenagers have fewer avenues to manage emotions and some of the most accessible ones are not always the ones that are useful/constructive for them. It's a tough time. For me, as an anxious kid when others died, I was happy knowing there was a plan, that the chance that my parents would die was incredibly unlikely, that they'd thought about what would happen to me, that I had a support network so I wouldn't be alone.
posted by jessamyn at 9:13 AM on September 8, 2018 [6 favorites]

I empathize with you a lot as a parent -- how much you want to make it OK for your kid. Honestly, I think just allowing your kid to be sad and scared, and not making grief and fear themselves something to be avoided, is the best you can do. You can say you're sad too, that you know the friend's kid will be taken care of but of course it is frightening to lose a parent, and that it is human to be sad and scared around death. It's a major theme of literature and religion and art from the earliest times. I think you might need to focus more not on what material you can give your 15 year old to make a premature death seem less bad, but more on how to let yourself OK with the fact that you don't have to change or solve your kid's difficult feelings. You can comfort him as you would with anything without feeling you need to solve it.
posted by nantucket at 9:23 AM on September 8, 2018 [4 favorites]

You may know this, but your teen may not: there's no timeline for grief. A lot of grief resources talk about the stages of grief, which is a helpful framework, but it's often presented as this nice linear progression from Denial to Acceptance at which point everything is hunky dory, and that's often not how we actually experience grief. Your kid might skip stages, 'go backwards' or think they've 'gotten through' only to be hit three years from now with sudden sadness that this person is gone.

Also, don't necessarily discount resources aimed at younger kids. As a 33 year old semi atheist, I found Coco really helpful in reframing the loss of my grandfather when I was 12.
posted by basalganglia at 9:54 AM on September 8, 2018 [4 favorites]

Anon, you can memail me, and then I can email you an extensive bibliography on loss for all ages. I'm working at a well-known children's hospital and found it on their company intranet.
posted by 8603 at 12:51 PM on September 8, 2018

Talk about your friend and encourage your teen to spend time with them if they can. It’s so easy for people to turn away from a person - and their family - during the dying and grief process because they don’t know how to act around them or how they should feel. I think the most important thing you can model is treating the other family as normally as possible. This will give your teen the comfort to express their own emotions and support the other family. Withdrawing often leads to regret and guilt later on.
posted by bendy at 1:52 PM on September 8, 2018 [2 favorites]

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