By Janet Harvey
From Remembering Well by Sarah York
As one of the youth leaders in a church and as a chaplain in a major trauma center, I have witnessed and sat with the grief of teenagers and young adults. Their grief is not different from anyone else’s, but it comes at a time in life when death is not supposed to happen. The capricious nature of death shatters their sense of immortality. When a friend or classmate dies, or when a parent or respected adult dies early in life, teenagers and young adults have their own particular struggles and needs in the face of death. The stories of Jim, Steven and Beth illustrate some of what teens have taught me about their special needs.
When Jim left the party, friends tried to take his keys. He and some of the others had been drinking beer all afternoon. “I’m fine,” he said as he and Simon took off in the small pickup truck. Rounding a curve, they drove right into a tree. The truck caromed off of the tree and rolled over into a ditch. Three hours later, Simon was in the morgue and Jim was in the emergency trauma room. Their friends found out about the accident and arrived at the hospital before any family members. Unable to get any information because they were not family members, they roamed the halls trying to find out what was happening and to support one another. Some of the hospital staff wanted them to leave. “Just go home. There is nothing you can do here. We can’t tell you anything.” They could not leave. They needed to be close to their friends, Jim and Simon. They needed to be with one another. Some of them gathered in groups of two or three – one crying and the others being supportive, one angry and the others calming him down, one sobbing and feeling totally responsible because she let Jim leave. Her friends held her and tried to let her know it wasn’t her fault.
Jim’s family arrived shortly before Jim died. They included his best friend, Jake, as they went into the trauma room in the emergency department to say goodbye. Later, Jake and the hospital chaplain went to the chapel where Jim and Simon’s friends (and the friends of the friends) were gathered. Jake and the chaplain told them that Jim and Simon had died. No one in that moment could have understood the pain and grief like their friends.
Often youths hear about a fatal injury or death before family and will need to get together in a place where they can be with one another. A trusted adult may gather the teens at the hospital, college chapel, school or church. They need to be together. It is too hard to go home alone with the questions, the fears and the grief. Their friends understand and offer support in ways that parents often cannot provide.
Some of the most comforting memorial services to adult friends and relatives may not speak to the grief of teens or young adults. Youths have their own experiences with their friends that parents and other adults do not know and often do not understand. They need to shed their tears, tell their stories, play their music and share their emotions in ways that often do not fit the services created for the families. Youths need to grieve and remember in their own unique ways.
Steven died of a drug overdose just before Christmas. Many of his friends were home from college visiting their families. The word went out, and the other friends arrived one by one. A traditional service was planned at Steven’s father’s church. Steven’s friends were upset by the service. Other than mentioning Steven’s name, nothing was said about who Steven was or how he had touched others’ lives.
Following the service, everyone was invited to walk with the family to the outdoor chapel where Steven’s ashes would be placed. After an equally dry and traditional committal, one of the mothers of Steven’s friends, who had led many of them in singing, began a song that spoke to the grief and the pain that these youths felt. They began singing and the tears came. Then they began telling the stories they remembered about Steven, laughing and crying.
Later in the spring, Steven’s mother held a memorial service for Steven on the Sunday closest to his birthday. This was to be a service that celebrated Steven in accordance with his own spirituality and beliefs. A candle was lighted in Steven’s memory by the minister who had been active while Steven was a member of the youth group at that church. Steven’s drama teacher told stories about Steven as an actor and student. The mothers of a number of Steven’s friends provided music that they had all shared. Friends told stories of his care and concern for them as they lighted a candle to his memory. At the completion of the service, the candle lighted for Steven was extinguished, but the light from the candles of memories and wishes remained. Afterward, all were invited to have cake and ice cream in celebration of his birth.
A few months before her 18th birthday, Beth took her own life. The daughter of the president of the congregation, Beth was well known to almost everyone in the church. Her death shocked the adults. Beth’s memorial service spoke to their questions and their concerns for the family and themselves, but her friends needed something more.
The youths were aware that Beth could be the most caring, funny and generous friend in the world but was also deeply depressed. They had been worried about her for months. She had tried to end her life before, and they knew that. Upon notification of her death, the youths gathered at the church, and I met with them. They sat in a familiar circle with an empty space that was very naturally left for the presence of Beth. They shared their fears, their sense of responsibility and guilt, and their love for her. Together we planned a service that would take place shortly after the service in the church. Her friends decided that the service would incorporate her music and her words. It would also express our pain in her choice of leaving us so soon and our joy in her being part of our lives.
After the end of the church service, we gathered the memorial flowers according to our prearranged plan. Youths, adults and a few children who had been very close to Beth drove to a special spot high above the Blue Ridge Parkway. We gathered in a small clearing and listened to an instrumental piece by Pink Floyd. On a cloth in the middle of our circle were placed the flowers, her pictures and objects that reminded us of Beth. We shared our thoughts, our memories, her poems and her music, closing with Pink Floyd’s “Wish You Were Here.” Then we each took a flower. Finding our own special spot and saying our own personal words, we tossed the flower over the edge of the mountain.
What do youths need? Here are a few elements that are important when a young person dies:
• Time to be alone and time together with friends.
• Support in knowing what is normal in grief: numbness, loss of appetite, crying, anger, inability to concentrate, fears, strange dreams and nightmares.
• Adults who will listen. Supportive people who can hold them and witness their anger and tears.
• Ways to express their grief and trusting that they will find those ways – through writing, talking, poetry, music, activity.
• Ways to incorporate their creative expressions and knowledge of their friend in a service.
• Youths closest to the deceased may need tangible objects – things that belonged to their friend that may have no meaning to an adult, such as a poster, a pin, a ticket stub to a concert, photographs, copies of poems or drawings. They may need something to hold on to, something to let go.
• If there is to be a burial, sometimes youth are invited to place special items (poems tucked in a pocket, a flower) in the casket. “Something of me goes with you, just as something of you will always remain with me.”
Janet Harvey is a Unitarian Universalist minister, mediator and hospital chaplain. She is also an artist, poet and woodcrafter.
• Sudden Death
• Writing a Condolence Note to a Grieving Child or Teen
• Youth Suicide: What You Can Say and Do to Help the Survivors
Also by Sarah York:
• When an Infant Dies
• Giving Sorrow Words
• Planning a Memorial Service after a Suicide
Sarah York is an author and Unitarian Universalist minister. Her book Remembering Well: Rituals for Celebrating Life and Mourning Death, now available in a new paperback edition, speaks to people who do not want a religious or spiritual context for ritual as well as those who do. The book received outstanding reviews from numerous publications, including Publishers Weekly, USA Today, The Washington Post, and the American Journal of Hospice and Palliative Care. Ms. York is semi-retired and is available as a keynote speaker and workshop presenter on topics related to her books.
Image Source: Flickr Creative Commons/nutmeg