The Tragedy of Losing a Teenager
By: Brandon Joffe, LCSW
The tragedy of losing a teenager in a school, a family, a community, or a friend group is one of the most confusing times we experience. It leaves so many people in a place of unbearable grief. In the early days of the tragedy, there is usually a time of needing to let people know and reaching out to the closest loved ones. There are plans that must be made and so many other busy things that happen directly after a tragedy. In the meantime, there are different levels of grief going on and different ways of coping that people rely on. Some people can’t and don’t cope whether they realize it or not. As a therapist, I have walked alongside schools, families, and individuals many times during seasons of grief. While I have no words that can fix the tragedy, I have noticed a few patterns that seem to hold true in all of these tragedies.
One thing that I often see is that people aren’t sure exactly what to do and most people want to do something to help. When people communicate calmly, consistently, and with the attitude of grace the community successfully supports the family of the lost loved one. When people let the desperation of wanting to do what is “right” right now and people have the attitude of “I know what is best and I must make that happen” frustration and sometimes anger takes over. I have watched people with the best of intentions start to blame and accuse each other rather than calmly walking alongside and loving each other. Every person and family has different dynamics, personalities, and emotional coping abilities. There are no right answers on how to help and what to do for the family or in the community.
Another observation is that many people, especially teens feel a lot of pressure to feel a certain way. I have had people tell me that they feel too sad and others feel very confused because they don’t feel sad enough. I have worked with teens who carry around extreme guilt and begin to question whether or not they are a good person because of what they are feeling or not feeling. The truth is that emotions are not linear and they are very different for us all. Sometimes we experience grief and respond intensely right away. Sometimes we are surprised because we thought we were fine and then months or even a year or two later we get hit all of the sudden with overwhelming grief. Some people feel bad, but are not intensely grieving because their relationship was resolved or because their connection was not one that would lead to deep grieving. It is often taboo to talk about the different reactions and unfortunately, self-perceptions can be damaged because of the weight of thinking there is a right way to feel.
I have also noticed the importance for the community and family to make plans and find ways to acknowledge the loss in the future. Many will think about and fear the time when the loss becomes something that is forgotten. There is a lot of healing and processing that can be done within the community when we come together and create plans to never forget the person you lost. It might be making plans to have traditions to be with the family in the years to come to remember the person. It might be making a memorial or creating a new tradition for a sports team in honor of the loved one. Start the conversation and if it is appropriate include the family of the loved one.
The final comment I would like to make is that often people will get caught up in finding answers. This is something that will always be, but at a certain point, it becomes unhealthy. Usually, there are questions, guilty feelings, unresolved issues, and strong opinions on the what and why of it all. Don’t get stuck in this and do not let this become the overwhelming response to a tragedy. It will get in the way of being able to walk alongside hurting people.
For some, the healing will be quick and for some, it will take a very long time. In tragedy, we must seek to grow and become better versions of ourselves. We must honor the good memories and acknowledge the difficult memories. Taking on guilt, placing blame, and having huge emotions about the loss is going to happen, but will never be a significant part of the healing process.