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Dealing with grief in your teenage years

The bereavement process eventually strikes us all, but coping with grief in your teenage years can seem like a monumental challenge.

My grandmother died unexpectedly about four months ago. I was overwhelmingly sad, embarrassed and fearful that death would strike again. I didn’t know how to handle all my emotions, all of them at once. I’d been prepared for a lot of things during these formative years. Grief wasn’t one of them.

I’m still figuring things out and finding ways to channel my emotions. My bereavement isn’t over, but I’m making healthy strides toward healing. During this process, however, I realized I wasn’t alone.

At 17, many of my teenage peers are also experiencing loss. I also realized that far too often, teens are uninformed about the process of dealing with grief and trauma until it strikes. I felt propelled to do something, anything, to help teenagers like myself – especially those in the black community, where mental health isn’t usually discussed.

Key differences

Dr. Caelan Soma, director of The National Institute for Trauma and Loss in Children in metro Detroit, tells BLAC, “All minority youth are at a greater risk for trauma. Even just racial disparity and racial trauma is something that we don’t talk a lot about in our day-to-day conversation.”

“The biggest message that we want to get across to adolescents is that they are not alone in their experience. Many times, a grieving or a traumatized child will think their symptoms and reactions are crazy,” Soma says. Adults may mistakenly react by attempting to treat the symptom based on their own guesstimates – summations often fall in line with eating disorders, inability to focus, anger or even paranoia – instead of the source itself.

While the teenage process of grief is biologically the same as that of an adult, their emotional responses to a situation of loss or trauma differ. Younger people often don’t share the same life experiences as adults, so it’s normal to not know how to handle these situations.

Another key difference? Their feelings aren’t always acknowledged by others.

“I think that children and teens are sometimes forgotten because maybe (adults) think it’s not affecting them as much, because they do have so many other new things going on in their life,” says Julie Weatherhead, a counselor at International Academy East in Troy and Hamtramck High School. “It might affect them down the line when they have time to process it.”

Grief in the black community

Black teens commonly fear judgment from their communities for seeking mental health help. The negative stigma of counseling often stems from reinforcement of a “keep it in the family” mentality. Children are taught to never tell their family’s business and to turn to the church – not a health professional – for help.

But even if seeking professional help is recommended, Weatherhead notes that the greater challenge for many African-Americans – particularly in Detroit, where public transportation is lacking – is getting to those resources. And if they do get there, there’s usually not someone who looks like them, says counseling professional Patrece Lucas of indigo transitions, PLLC.

Lucas works to combat the negative stereotypes associated with counseling by normalizing mental health awareness and sharing more valuable information in her community. She also partners with Sweet Potato Sensations co-owner Espy Thomas and Coffee With a Counselor, a community mental health awareness effort, to co-facilitate the grief group “Where Do Black Women Go to Grieve?

Both counselors say it’s important to tap into these types of resources. Young black people are more likely to battle stereotypes, social issues and more, making it more challenging to cope.

These counseling professionals all agree that the first step in processing grief is acknowledgement of loss, and acknowledgement that there are different types of loss. A common misconception is that a human loss – death – is the only loss that can result in grief. But grief can also be triggered by loss of adolescence or a pet or anything else with a strong emotional tie.

“If going back to a routine and normalcy helps you to move forward, that’s fine,” says Renee Jamil, a counselor at International Academy East. “If you’ve got to cry about it and be angry about it and scream about it, that’s fine, too.”

A visit to the school counselor may work wonders, and talking isn’t always involved. Sometimes, says Jamil, the counselor’s office is a safe haven to relax for an hour.

Not into counseling?

Counseling isn’t appealing to everyone – particularly those who aren’t comfortable talking through their emotions with a stranger. Sometimes grief groups, where there is safety in numbers, and the internet can also be beneficial.

But something else to consider, counselors say, is to establish coping skills, or healthy ways to channel your emotions, as a preventative measure. You don’t have to wait until grief strikes. If verbal communication is difficult, try self-expression in other ways.

“That could be painting, that could be writing, that could be physical exercise,” Weatherhead says. “Art is also a really strong nonverbal way to express yourself.”

And of course, talk to a trustworthy friend – if you’re comfortable doing so. For teenagers with friends experiencing grief, the overlapping advice of all the professionals is to simply be there. Instead of trying to “fix” your friends, just listen to what they have to say, Weatherhead says. If they are showing signs of depression, try to get them out the house or recommend that they talk to someone. It’s OK to ask them about their loss and to ask if they want to talk about it.

There’s no expiration date on the bereavement process. For Weatherhead, she likes to think “moving forward,” not “moving on.” Memorialization of the loss can be a good thing, and she notes that grief is something that will become a part of you; neither of these are bad things.

Jamil adds there’s nothing wrong with coping and grieving in different ways. It might take several weeks, months or years to establish your new normal. “It’s your journey, it’s your process, and it’s up to you to determine what that looks like,” she says.

ASHLEIGH GARRISON IS THE AUTHOR OF DODGEBALL MYSTERY. SHE IS A HIGH SCHOOL SENIOR AT INTERNATIONAL ACADEMY EAST AND PLANS TO STUDY JOURNALISM AND ECONOMICS IN THE FALL. SHE LIVES IN DETROIT.

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