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Our Teens are Experiencing Grief & Loss too

Reflections on parenting teens, coping during a pandemic and experiencing the power of connection.

by K. Anderson Waterloo ON

Working from home. Kids doing school online. No face to face socializing or gatherings. This has been a very…odd time, to say the least.

It did strike me that we have NO precedent for this.

Like the virus, this way of life, is “novel”: unfamiliar, new, unseen before. Some families seem to be thriving, finding fun and creative ways to stay connected, stay involved and stay enthusiastic.

However, many are not thriving, not at all. Most of my peers whom I speak to are starting to feel immense strain. Sleep and routines are disrupted, people are missing their friends and family, going out for a meal, freedom to travel, etc. Where I am, the world feels empty, quiet, and lonely.

Through it all, there is a pervasive sense of loss and grief. And we worry about our children.

On a personal level, my two teenage boys were excited when school was cancelled.  More time for sleeping and video games right? However, like the rest of us, as time has gone on, some of the harsher realities have set in. Worries and concerns about summer jobs, volunteer hours, no graduation ceremony. Grief about missing friends, not being able to go for a driver’s test, summer activities cancelled.  Feeling totally isolated and confined to the house or yard for the most part.

My daughter was away at school in residence, doing a practicum for her studies, hanging out with new friends. Then came the announcement that school would be closed for a week. But it never opened back up. We made an appointment to go to her residence and pack everything up. No chance to say goodbye face to face to her new friends. No goodbyes to the vulnerable  and elderly clients she was working with on her practicum placement. No job prospects, concerts, festivals, camping this summer. All those things that make young life especially vital and exciting. Losses that are hard to understand, let alone deal with.

Truly, I cannot imagine being a teen or young adult and being stuck inside a house with my parents for weeks on end. (as I’m sure they couldn’t either! haha.) Love you mom & dad!

I think one of the hardest things for the human spirit to deal with is uncertainty.

People can deal with a lot of things when there is a beginning and an end. The “beginning” of this had little to no warning for most people, especially kids. Suddenly the “rules” changed, you can’t go out like before, you have to stay home, you can’t see your friends face to face…with no sense of when this would end.

I think we all have a deep sense that things aren’t going to go back to “the way they were” . As adults, we have experienced more adversity, and life experiences and gained some semblance of wisdom and coping skills. And yet, many of us are still suffering. As adults, we are working, paying bills, preparing meals, doing our regular chores, attending to our children, perhaps we have a partner in the home. Our routine has certainly been disrupted but not even close to how the lives of our teens have altered.

The developmental task of teens and young adults is  “moving away”, taking necessary steps on their own in what we call the “dance of attachment”. Rebelling and distancing to some degree, spending time with their peers, taking risks, showing big and strong emotions, navigating romantic relationships. All of these activities are relevant and necessary to develop the neural pathways in their brain.

They need stimulation, information, outside influences to bounce ideas off of in non judgmental relationships away from the eyes and ears of parents.   

This is very very hard to do when the most physical distance they can achieve at this point is go outside for a walk, run or bike ride. 

There is a grieving process involved in all of this. We feel grief. We feel loss. We all move in and out of the various  “stages” of grief. Teens temporal lobes aren’t fully developed and take longer to process information, so it is normal if they are behind you in the grieving process.

Understanding grief can be especially hard for teens right now because the very thing they need to do… go out and see their friends and explore the world, is the very thing they are being told not to do.

It’s hard for parents to not see this as selfish, but they are not doing it just to be jerks.  Even though it feels like it sometimes. 😉

Here are some ways teens and young adults may experience or express the stages of grief:

  • Shock:  might well be constant, re-experienced as each new cancellation and disappointment occurs
  • Denial: not acknowledging the virus is an actual threat, this is especially difficult because it is an “invisible” danger
  • Anger: which may look like resistance to chores and homework, sneaking out of the house, blaming you for making their life so difficult, etc.
  • Depression: which may manifest as tiredness, zoning out, numbing out, boredom, frustration
  • Acceptance. those moments–sometimes very brief–where they express that they understand, “I get it, Mom”, when they are suddenly cooperative and helpful
  • Finding Meaning. this is a difficult space to be for most of us….but for our teens, we might see it in those moments when they find new or creative ways to connect with what matters to them. Maybe it is a new project or bit of research, maybe it is playing cards with a younger sibling, maybe it is as simple as saying “I love you”.

Grief is fluid and we often go back and forth between the different stages. Emotions we thought we were done with might resurface when faced with new information, new barriers, new struggles. But hopefully within these moments, we are able to find some meaning, some wisdom about ourselves and our relationships, our lives. We need to give ourselves permission to feel these emotions and not be in a hurry to be done with them. We need to give our teens permission for this, as well.

The grieving process may be especially difficult for our teens and young adult children since so much of their identity comes from interaction with peers and socialization outside of the family.

I find I am doing my own push and pull in this too. I want my children to engage with me and have fun together. But when they are sullen and cranky, I ALSO feel like going into my room and shutting my door.  But I don’t. Not often anyway. When my work day is finished, I put on some music and spend my time in the main living area. Prepare food, tidy, play with the animals etc. When I paint, go for a walk or have time to watch a movie I invite them to join me. Sometimes 1 or 2 join in, sometimes they don’t.

Then there is the sense of guilt I feel for even feeling down about this at all. I mean, I am not a front line worker exposing myself to the virus. I am working and getting paid. I have a home and a yard. I am healthy. I read the news stories and am aware of the serious struggles people are facing, here and abroad. I am aware that the level of loss and struggle varies widely between people and circumstance. There is a lot of talk about the gift of time this affords us. To exercise more, plant gardens and pick up new hobbies. I know this is privileged. People do what they need to do and if you have the resources and the will to do these things that is great! And if you don’t, that is ok too.  This will end. There will be a “new normal”. Some of us may have learned some really useful things about ourselves. Some of us will have a difficult time building things back.

So we forge on. One foot in front of the other. Perhaps contemplating how we want our life to look when this is done. What things we want to let go of and others that we want to incorporate. We can’t get back the time we lost, the occasions we missed, the landmarks we were not able to mark the way we wanted to. 

One thing my daughter finds the most difficult is the isolation, the loneliness. I know that it has also afforded her the chance to step back, breathe deeper and reflect on what and who she wants in her life when society opens up.  Like most things in life, there is a bitter, and a sweet side. 

For us, we are working through some family struggles that were perhaps avoided amidst our hurried lifestyle,pre-pandemic. My daughter is getting back in touch with her creative side, painting and sculpting. We are going for walks and taking photos. Cooking together, enjoying the sun on our faces.

After all, what do all humans really need? Connection.

Connection is not without struggle and conflict and disagreement. We all deal with challenge and change in unique ways but I for one am thankful for this slice of time to spend getting to know each other better.


And sometimes the hardest days, when we pull through, end up being the days of deepest connection.






5 Responses to “Our Teens are Experiencing Grief & Loss too”

  1. Maggie Kunkel says:

    Wow Kristen! Well said, well written and great pictures! Hang in there everyone.

  2. Nadia says:

    It is a great read, Kristen. Thanks for reminding us of teen struggles during this time.

  3. Maryanne Paul says:

    What an insightful article ❤️

  4. Georgina says:

    Very well-written and genuine, Kristen!

  5. Teresa Wikkerink says:

    Such a great reminder to understand the stages of grief that our teens and older kiddos are dealing with, thanks.

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