An important developmental step on the way to adulthood is achieving the ability to both accept and give love. More than a task, it is a gift. A gift particularly powerful in times of crisis, such as the death of a young person.
Such sad occasions give urgency to the need to connect with those you love and who love you in return, reflecting on a bond broken by tragedy.
Of course, the loss of any family member or friend is profound. It is often quite difficult to grapple with the emotional fallout that usually ensues. This is especially true for children and teenagers who may have little experience dealing with grief. They benefit greatly from the kind counsel of parents and other caring adults in their lives.
What do we know about grief? Some things, though likely not enough.
We know that there are some fairly predictable "stages" that, ironically, may not really be predictable after all -- at least in terms of sequencing, duration or degree of emotionality. According to the National Association of School Psychologists (NASP) they are:
• Denial (unwillingness to discuss the loss)
• Anger or guilt (blaming others for the loss)
• Sorrow or depression (loss of energy, appetite or interest in activities)
• Bargaining (attempts to regain control by making promises or changes in one's life)
• Acceptance or admission (acceptance that loss is final, real, significant and painful)
NASP also offers insights on additional reactions that might warrant further attention. Among elementary-aged children these include difficulty concentrating, somatic complaints (such as headaches and stomach aches), difficulty sleeping, withdrawal and increased anxiety. For older children, signs of trouble include flashbacks, nightmares, problems with peers and substance use.
It is important to note that each person -- adult, teen or child -- processes grief a bit differently and thus counseling always needs to be calibrated to the individual and the situation. Teens in particular may appear to experience deeper emotional reactions than younger children or adults.
Most all youth-related organizations stress the power of adult modeling when it comes to grief. Open, supportive dialogue best prepares young people to process their reactions when someone they love has been lost. And process is the key. Grief is not a static event but rather a continuum of emotions that may last for years. Thus, patience must prevail.
Seminal to a discussion about loss and grief is the time-tested experience that "it is better to have loved and lost than not to have loved at all." That sentiment was on display during the recent Olympic games in a broadcast segment about the 2012 death of Canadian free skier Sarah Burke and the work of her family to honor her legacy of generosity and helping others.
Love and loss. Perhaps they are intrinsically intertwined.
Young people of all ages require help to build what has come to be known as emotional intelligence. In short, emotional intelligence is all about exploring, identifying, understanding, controlling and communicating feelings. Chief among those might very well be feelings of love. Giving and receiving.
Both are critical at times of loss.
As a well-known, if unattributed, saying goes, "People so seldom say I love you and then it's either too late or love goes. So when I tell you I love you, it doesn't mean I know you'll never go, only that I wish you didn't have to."
Learning to love out loud. Good words for bad times.