As a father, watching your child grieve for a loved one is utterly heartbreaking. And naturally, it’s even harder if you too are experiencing your own grief. But although it might feel as though you are both consumed by darkness right now, there will eventually be light at the end of the tunnel.
Of course, hearing that your pain will be slightly more tolerable at some point in the distant future is of little comfort to you at this very moment. So what exactly can you do right now to help your child to process the death of a loved one?
Take a step back
Though your first instinct might be to rush in and try and fix everything straight away, it’s important to first take a step back and evaluate the situation. Each teenager is different and the circumstances leading up to and following their particular loss or trauma will be different too. How you can best help your child will depend entirely on their individual personality, their relationship to the deceased and their relationship with you. There is no one size fits all when it comes to processing grief.
There’s no right or wrong way to deal with grief. Whilst you might find it useful to calmly talk about things, your teenager might find it easier to listen to music they relate to or escape into an alternate reality in the form of TV, movies or video games. They may even need to lash out, scream and cry to start the healing process.
The point is, don’t try and force your personal method of grieving onto your child. Try and understand their own process and offer your assistance in a way that they will understand and appreciate.
Acknowledge & reassure
Make sure your child knows that their thoughts, feeling and emotions are valid and important. Even if they don’t open up to you vocally, knowing that you at least acknowledge their personal struggle will go a long way.
Reassure them that the wide range of emotions they are experiencing is perfectly normal. Even if they have different emotions to you, make sure they feel heard and validated. You may not get a response, but if you consistently acknowledge and reassure them, the message will eventually sink in.
This one sounds painfully obvious, but it might be surprisingly difficult for you to simply ‘be there’, especially if you are also grieving yourself.
There is no overnight fix to the issue of grief and loss. It will take time. There will be road-blocks, steps backwards and progress, if any, will be slow. Simply being there and making sure that your child knows that they can rely on you, if and when they need to, is essential. Even if they scream and shout, lash out, push you away or act as if you don’t exist, you simply need to continue to be there.
Your child will be feeling vulnerable, particularly if they have just lost a parent or parental figure. Knowing that they have a safety net no matter what (even if they don’t choose to use it) will be invaluable to their recovery as well as their mental health now and in future.
Find your own safety net
Whether it’s your family, friends or a local grief group, you need to make sure that you have a support network around you to help. It’s almost impossible for you to be everything your teenager needs right now. Allowing yourself to get help from others is therefore key.
Your child might also benefit from talking to another adult instead of you. Don’t take this personally, talking to someone who isn’t their father may simply be what they need to do. You can, of course, keep track of their progress and see that they are doing OK by checking in with the other adults in their life. Teachers, parents of friends, grandparents, aunts or uncles could all be people that they turn to for support. These people will be keen to help and can also alert you of any behaviour that may be of concern.
Get professional help
Many people feel threatened, scared or even offended at the prospect of seeking outside help. But utilising the services of experienced professionals is by no means an indication that you are unfit or unable to support your child. It simply means that you are human.
Besides, getting help doesn’t have to mean seeing a therapist. It could be a local support group or an organisation specialising in supporting grieving children. There are plenty of resources available in your local area and online, you just need to take the first step and reach out.
And finally… look after yourself
Although your number one priority is to help your child, it’s extremely important that you look after yourself too. After all, if you’re drowning in despair and not getting the support you need, you won’t be able to help your child. Giving yourself some time and space to grieve is essential. Do not underestimate the importance of looking after yourself as well as supporting your teenager through this ordeal.
James is the founder of Feel The Magic, a non-profit organisation that provides grief education and support to bereaved children and their families to help alleviate the pain and isolation felt by the loss of a parent, sibling or legal guardian. Back in 2012, in the wake of losing his mother, James decided to dedicate his life to giving grieving children a voice and a safe place to grow and thrive. He believes through Feel The Magic, he has been able to offer lifelines of hope to families who have suffered unimaginable losses, facilitating a journey of recovery and self-discovery.