Grief can be experienced through many situations. It doesn’t necessarily mean the emotion of losing a loved one, but that is one area that I can empathise with.
I grew up in London. By the age of seven, my parents had separated after it emerged that my dad was leaving my mum for his secret girlfriend who was having his baby. I watched the struggle my mum endured and the resulting suicide attempt on her life. During this time, we were cared for by my grandparents. I’m not sure I really understood what was going on, although the atmosphere was tense and undesirable. To add to Mum’s pain, her beloved dad, who had been a rock for her, passed away on the day my dad’s son was born, so becoming a constant reminder of her pain. By the time I was eight, my mum made the decision to take my sister (aged ten) and I to New Zealand. Though she knew no-one in NZ, she sold up everything to give us a better lifestyle. Back then, fathers didn’t have much say and we were torn apart from Dad at the airport. As we sought to find a home and a job for Mum, she remained unsettled so took us back to London to live. Yet after just a short period, we returned as she could not settle in London either. (My mum is an amazingly strong and courageous woman, not someone prone to random decisions!) Back in NZ we carried on, missing family back home and not having family of our own in NZ. By the time I was sixteen, my sister was on her way to a successful music career, having won a number of competitions and had been offered a contract in Australia to begin a few months later.
We saw her perform on the 19th August... but tragically the next morning she died of a heart attack, after taking medication that reacted with her asthma. Now I really did know grief, loss and suffering. There is so much more I could say about that time, but my main concern was that at sixteen, I had to become a mum: my poor mum struggled to cope with such loss and I had to grow up overnight, take responsibility of her, and the other day-to-day decisions. (As a side note, it took the birth of my son ten years later to truly give her great joy and happiness again).
We all deal with grief differently. For me, it was important to not let my life be defined by the loss of my parent’s relationship, the pain of moving away from family in the UK, and the overwhelming grief of losing my beautiful sister. It was important to take positive steps in saying that I could make a difference and look ahead to achieve the goals I had set for myself. I’m not perfect and still struggle with the loss now, but I have been blessed with an amazing husband and four incredible sons: good comes even when hardship feels overwhelming.
Story: Sarah Grut
For Sarah, it was helpful that I knew her sister and could process her grief with her. Over my years as a youth pastor, I have worked with teenagers contemplating suicide and experiencing the loss of family members and peers. I have come to understand that loss is something that we will face in our lifetime but it can be gut-wrenchingly painful when someone you are close to, have relied on for support, and been encouraged and loved by, is suddenly gone. These are times when we search for deeper meaning in life and answers to the big questions that maybe we have not wanted to face. The reality that we will no longer see that person again can be overwhelming. Yet I am convinced that caring adults, parents, teachers, counsellors, friends, and professionals at times, can support teens through times of grief. If adults are open, honest and loving, experiencing loss can be a chance for young people to learn about both the joy and pain that comes from caring deeply for others. There are, however, some important considerations.
Firstly, teens need to understand that grieving is a natural process that consists of pain as well as remembering the significance and joy of walking life with someone who was close to us. We get to carry a legacy and the memory of a loved one who shaped our lives, but in losing this relationship, it’s OK not to be OK. Secondly, we need to remember that the grieving process takes time and varies from teenager to teenager. Sometimes as adults we are quick to label the way a teen grieves, yet we cannot prescribe the grieving process. It will vary depending on the person grieving and the nature of the relationship that has been lost. Thirdly, we need to understand that teenagers have an adult understanding of the concept of death, but do not have the experiences of life or the coping skills of an adult. The outcome of that grieving experience may leave teens behaving in ways that seem inappropriate or frightening. Keep an eye out for:
- Symptoms of chronic depression, sleeping difficulties, restlessness and low self-esteem.
- Academic failure or indifference to school-related activities.
- Deterioration of relationships with family and friends.
- Risk-taking behaviours such as drug and alcohol abuse, fighting, and sexual experimentation.
- Denying pain while at the same time acting overly strong or mature.
These flag that additional support may be required, whether with a mentor, counsellor, doctor or someone who has got through the pain they’re experiencing and doing well.
Even in the absence of these features, teens need the loving support of parents and adults through times of grief. Spend time with them and give them space to express feelings and emotions. Don’t be surprised by sudden outbursts of emotion; embrace them and show them support through compassion and understanding of the feelings and emotions that they are facing. Facilitate honest expression in caring relationships and encourage teenagers to be real with God about how they are feeling. In the midst of this, help them to understand that their current experience of pain will not last forever. This can provide hope and strength to help them journey through such painful times.
Story: Gary Grut
Gary Grut is the National Team Leader for Baptist Youth Ministries. He and Sarah have been happily married for twenty-eight years.
Photo Credit: Prixel Creative/lightstock.com