Helping Teenagers with the Death Of A Sibling-Children’s Grief Awareness Month

by Molly Senecal

children's grief awareness month

It’s November already. Almost one year since my youngest daughter died by suicide during her first semester away at college. Even as I write those words, I have to pause and let them wash over me as though they are new words, as if this is a new grief.

I don’t think these words will ever settle down like old words. Not only does November hold the day of Eve’s death, but it is also Children’s Grief Awareness Month. A time when we, the grown-ups, are asked to pause, and to turn to the children, who are often quiet about their own grief journey.

Children’s Grief Awareness Month

What does children’s grief awareness mean?

It means we should remember that the young cry just as hard, their sorrow is just as wide, and most will need someone more experienced to show them how to move forward with their grief.

So, while I am sorely tempted to hunker down for the entire month of November, to run away from this impossible month, I can’t. Because my living children are still here, and even though they are not small anymore, they still need me. And, to be honest, I need them too. 

I always worry about my living children, even more so now — it comes with the territory of being a parent of a child who died. But I worry more about my quiet fifteen-year-old boy than I do about my twenty-year-old daughter who is able to lay down all her sad-angry grief words, tossing them loudly like keys thrown on a kitchen counter. I’m not always sure how to help my son who carries his quietness like a shield.

My son, who said, early on, that he did not want to talk to anyone, and he did not want to be treated any differently. When he goes to school, or is out with his friends, he just wants to be a normal kid.

I get that. I get that grief shows up in different ways for different people. I want to respect his desire for normalcy, while giving him ways of visiting his sister’s memory, of holding his loss in ways that feel comfortable for him.

Based on my experiences both as a mother and as an educator in higher education, I am seeing that our young people are becoming less comfortable being vulnerable face to face with another person, and would rather express themselves behind screens through snapchats and Instagram posts.

I believe we need to continue to reinforce face to face connections, but I think we can leverage technology and indirect communication methods to provide additional outlets for our teenagers to grieve, especially the quiet ones. 

Helping Teenagers Grieve

Here are some strategies I found helpful in supporting my teenagers, the young adults in our family, and our children’s friends. Some of these have also provided comfort to other parents, teachers, close family friends, and many people who were impacted by this loss.

  1. Create a shared photo album in iCloud — early on one of Eve’s friends created a shared iCloud album and added all of Eve’s close friends, family, and a few teachers as subscribers. We could then comment and “heart” photos, and it was such a blessing to see so many photos that I would have normally never seen. Today that album has over 1,250 photos and videos, and it continues to grow. It is a source of solace to know that my children and their friends find comfort in these photos, and I find comfort in them too.
  2. Create a Instagram account or memorialize a Facebook page in memory of their loved one — this allows people to post photos, stories, videos, or just scroll through the site. If you have family members scattered wide, geographically, this can be a nice way of providing “low-touch” connection that permits your teen to engage as much or little as they want. Even if your teen never posts or comments, they can still read and scroll through the stories and photos. And when they are ready, they can share their own stories, or you can bring up a memory in an indirect grief conversation.
  3. Have indirect grief conversations — rather than sit my son down, and ask him to talk to me about his loss (which usually ends up being a very short conversation), I found it more helpful to engage in an activity with him. The activity could be something we used to do when they were young. Keeping the conversation light and comfortable — I weave in stories of Eve, the good, the funny, the silly — to show him that it’s okay to talk about her in a lighthearted way, and that her name does not always have to be weighed down with tears. That his memories of her did not lose their goodness when she died. Through this I also remind him that it is okay to ask questions, or to feel different emotions because grief changes. I’ve had several indirect grief conversations with my son since Eve died, but one of the most tender conversations took place on the river last summer.

The River

Earlier, last summer, my son and I were out on the river, floating on our paddle boards as wild geese called overhead — a beautiful, blue day. It was something we did countless times when they were all young and all alive. 

He was lying face down on his board, arms tracing patterns in the water, and we rested comfortably in the sun. I remember telling him how proud I was of him, of the person he was becoming, and that he could always talk to me about anything, including his sister and how she died.

Do you have any questions about your sister? I asked. 

Well, he started after a pause, what, like, what happened?

I said, You know how she died, and that she was very sad. Are you asking why she made the decision she did?

She was overwhelmed, my boy said.

I told him, Yes, she was overwhelmed. It’s like when you broke your nose last summer. Remember when we were in the emergency room, and it wouldn’t stop bleeding?

He nods.

And it hurt really bad, and all you could think about at that moment was your broken nose. All you wanted was for your nose to stop hurting. But this did not mean what you stopped loving me, or your dad, or your sisters. It just meant that right then you couldn’t think about anything else other than how bad your nose hurt. Right?

He nods again.

It was like that for your sister. Sometimes depression hurts, hurts worse than your broken nose. That was all she could think about at that moment when she made that decision. It did not mean that she stopped loving you, or me, or us. This is what I hope you remember — she held on for as long as she could, and she never stopped loving you.  

He looks at me, eyes squinting in the sun, and nods his head. His shoulders soften, just so, and the geese calling overhead cast shadows on us as we paddle our way home.

Molly Senecal is a deaf writer on grief, suicide, and loss. She is a mother to three children, and began writing about grief when her youngest daughter died by suicide at college. Follow her at: https://mollysenecal.com/

Free Resource: The best guide I’ve ever read on how to talk to children about the suicide of a loved one. From American Foundation of Suicide Prevention and the Dougy Center for Grieving Children.

The most important aspect is listening and sitting with the pain instead of trying to “fix” what can’t be fixed.

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