Today, Jared (16) was called in by the school psychiatrist.
The psychiatrist spoke to him at length about the stages of grief. Jared loves facts.
Thanks to Google I am well versed in the stages of grief and constantly try to monitor where the boys are in the process. I did not stop to think that knowing the stages, in detail, would give them a sense of comfort.
Ten years ago we were told by the doctors that Vic had maybe 5 years to live. The boys were then 6 and 4 years old.
At the age of five, a child may have thought of death as a deep sleep from which the person would eventually awaken, (like the princess in Sleeping Beauty). At seven, the child may believe that only grandmas and grandpa’s and other elderly folks can become ill and die—but not little kids or their parents. Age 12 they know that death can happen at any time…
Jared developed a sugar problem at the age of 6…due to the stress of Vic’s illness. Over the years he has developed a weight problem as he stress eats. His school marks have dropped and he has lost interest in sport, his friends and life. He is a Type 2 Diabetic.
On the surface Jon-Daniel appears to be coping far better than Jared.
He excels in school and has immersed himself in sports or hobbies. I think what may really be at work here is a defence mechanism known as sublimation. I believe that Jon-Daniel has over the years subconsciously channeled his strong feelings of grief into a more “socially acceptable” outlet. He directs his attention solely to areas where he feels comfortable. It is his way of regaining control over a world that has been jolted out of orbit.
Having the intellectual capacity to grasp the implications of death doesn’t necessarily equip teenagers to cope emotionally with the tragedy. Adolescents typically appear to feel grief more intensely than adults, especially if one of their parents has died. The Adolescent Life Change Event Scale (ALCES), which mental-health specialists use to help quantify the events that are the most stress-inducing in teenagers, ranks a parent’s death as the number one cause of adolescent stress. Second is the death of a brother or sister, followed by the death of a friend.
The stress started years before Vic died. The boys grew up knowing that their Mommy was ill and in a lot of pain. The realization actually only hit home with them in 2007 when we told the boys on a couple of occasions that Vic was dying. In hindsight it would have been better if we never told them but at the time I believed it to be the right thing to do. I could not lie to the boys and tell them Vic was doing well when she was fighting for her life on a ventilator and the doctors were turning off the ventilator.
It was clear with Jon-Daniel over the years that he harboured resentment towards Vic when she was in hospital. In his eyes Vic abandoned them…his way of coping was to “harden” his heart. He would literally ignore her or act up when she was ill… Over the past year he however “softened” his attitude towards his sick mom.
Because adolescents are so sensitive about their “image”, they may feel self-conscious or outright embarrassed by displays of grief and struggle to suppress their emotions. This can also be a means of protecting themselves.
As a family we experienced “anticipatory grief”. During the past year especially we resorted to black humour. There is no “right way” or “wrong way” to mourn. Jared told me today that he asked his Church councillor last year whether you can mourn someone whilst they are still alive….
Grief is often expressed in one of the following ways:
- Changes in conduct or acting-out behaviours
- “Perfect” behaviour
- A decline in academic performance
- Refusing to attend school
- Turning to alcohol or illicit drugs to numb the emotional pain
- Seeking solace through a sexual relationship
- Overeating or under-eating
- Sleeping more than usual or not getting enough sleep
- Physical symptoms
It is said that a teenager who loses a parent is also subconsciously mourning the end of the childhood he’d led up until now. However in the case of Vic the boys have potentially regained a childhood…I just hope and pray it is not too late for them to have a childhood.
Five Stages of Grieving
Shock / Denial
This is a protective mechanism that helps the person to function for the time being. With denial, the person may refuse to believe what happened. For instance, one teen was waiting for her friend to come to her graduation party and kept texting him to see when he would be there. Finally, she got a call from his sister telling her that he was killed in a motorcycle accident. She refused to believe he was dead, however, and reacted by telling the sister she was lying. Of course, his friend was experiencing shock. During shock, the person can function as though nothing happened, but may feel like she is in a surreal world or place.
Often there is blaming others for the loss or lashing out at people. Sometimes people act out their anger in other ways. The mother of a teen realized she was blaming her son for causing his own death after she began telling his friends, “Please, don’t do this to your mothers.” In essence, she was saying to her son, “Look what you’ve done to me.” The anger needs to be processed, though. The mother began to realize that her son was a teenager and that teenagers take risks. Teenagers’ brains aren’t fully developed in the area of judgment, so they don’t gauge risks the same way as an adult. Also, there were other factors that contributed to her son’s death besides his risk-taking behavior. Working through the anger helps a person to move through the other stages of grieving.
Bargaining / Magic
This often involves either cutting a contract with yourself, asking your higher power to take you out of the situation or fantasizing that this is some sort of dream and tomorrow you’ll wake up and it will never have happened. This stage helps the person to feel some control over the situation. For example, when one mother saw her son in the hospital emergency room lying dead in a body bag after all attempts of resuscitation had failed, she laid over his body begging God to breathe life back into him, praying for a miracle.
Depression / Grief / Sadness
This stage involves a lot of “what ifs.” The person now turns the anger inward and blames herself for the loss. Often this is false guilt, though, and the person really had no control over what happened or no real way to prevent it. This stage provides an opportunity for the person to grow spiritually and perhaps further develop spiritual beliefs as she searches for the meaning or purpose of life, death, pain and suffering. Even if the person is somehow at fault, perhaps the person’s actions or shortcomings are being used as part of a greater plan.
Acceptance / Forgiveness / Resolution
Accepting the loss doesn’t mean you like what happened. It does mean that you are trusting that life can be good again in spite of the hurt and pain the loss has caused you. Sometimes we need to forgive the loss or perhaps someone who has directly caused our pain or grief. Forgiving means letting go of bitterness and revenge, which only harm us and not the offender. To be unforgiving means we are not moving on and letting go, but continuing to allow ourselves to be hurt by the other party or the loss. We feel more powerless when we keep wanting something from others that they cannot give us. Perhaps this is an apology or maybe a change of heart. Nevertheless, we can always grow and move on without seeing any change in the other person or getting back what was taken from us. We take back our power in the situation when we begin reversing the negative consequences in our lives and perhaps by finding new purposes and meanings for our lives. http://www.cincinnatichildrens.org/service/s/surviving-teens/stressors/grief-loss/
Grief never ends, but it does change in character and intensity. Grieving is like the constantly shifting tides of the ocean; ranging from calm, low tides to raging high tides that change with the seasons and the years. I know this from my parents and BFF deaths.
We will meet with the Hospice councillor that the boys saw last year – they connected with him. Maybe it is time to start Jared on an anti-depressant….
We love the boys so much. I wish we could wrap them in cotton and protect them from the world. They are so beautiful and have these AMAZING personalities. They are not difficult or rebellious teenagers.
I wish I knew what to do.