Several years ago our drama teacher passed away unexpectedly, and it fell to me to tell the 7th and 8th grade drama students. After I broke the news, they sat in silence until one young lady said, “I’m sad, but I don’t feel like crying,” and another said, “I don’t know what I’m supposed to say!”
I’ve spent time over the years explaining the grieving process to 8th graders, assuring them that the sadness will come and go in waves, and that it’s okay to have happy times even when you’re grieving. They feel guilty for being happy (or angry), and they’re surprised when people laugh during or after a memorial service. Dealing with grief is a life experience that teens know comes with adult rules and expectations–but they don’t know what those are, and they’re afraid they’ll do or say the wrong thing.
Recently our school community had to deal with the loss of a beloved former student in a tragic accident. As the news spread via social media, we adults found ourselves not just counseling teens through their sadness, but answering questions like, “Is it normal to feel this way? Is it okay for me to do this?”
Some teens want to talk through their grief right from the beginning, but others will need time to process. Wise adults will avoid asking direct questions like, “Do you want to talk about it?” or “How are you feeling about all this?” Instead, listen for opportunities to approach sideways, like heavy sighing (ask, “Feeling kind of emotional today?”) or watch for a sad expression (say, “I’m missing her, too).
Remember, it’s not your job to cheer up a grieving teen; you are there to listen with empathy and understanding. Offer assurance that there is another side to the valley of sadness, but it’s better to trudge through it than try to avoid it. When teens start laughing again and moving on with life, reassure them that it’s normal and expected.
And know that it’s okay for you to laugh, too.