Help for the helpers offers advice at Amity

When someone close to you dies, everything changes. Carrying out everyday duties while carrying the pain of loss is bad enough. All the questions about the meaning of life and about your place in the universe come bubbling up before you.

How is this different for teens? Mary Ann Emswiler spoke to a group of 25 adults and a few students at Amity Senior High School last Thursday, outlining some of the differences and similarities between an adult's grieving and that of an adolescent. Emswiler is a licensed professional counselor and, with her husband, a co-founder of The Cove Center for Grieving Children, a non-profit organization that has been counseling children and families since 1994. The Cove is based in Milford and has branches in New Haven, Guilford, and other towns.

In the past two years, three Amity High School students and a number of recent graduates have died, leaving their friends as well as their families. Staff of The Cove approached Amity's guidance department, offering help with training for school staff, and advising them of the more recently established Teen Cove program in Milford.

From the inside

A hallmark of the teen years is the identity search-separating from your parents, measuring yourself against your friends, being yourself (whatever that is). If you're in the middle of defining yourself as the opposite of your mom or dad, and that parent dies, everything gets harder. If you start looking to friends more than family for ideas about the world, and one of those friends is suddenly gone, where do you look next?

Parents of grieving children often have to deal with their own feelings. Older children and teens may not turn to parents if they feel they have to protect their parents. Adults caring for grieving children may best help them by "being emotional coaches," showing them how to keep going without bottling up their pain, showing the safe times and places to fall apart and let everything out.

From the outside

The reactions of bereft people-adults as well as teens-can be hard for others to understand. Increased sleeping or chronic physical illness (headaches, stomach-aches, palpitations) is easily traced to emotional depression. Even "acting out" about seemingly unrelated topics seems obviously related to anger about the death, anger at God and the universe.

Engaging in risky behavior-driving over the speed limit, sexual promiscuity, partying and substance abuse-is more puzzling to those trying to help. The bereaved may be looking for an adrenaline rush to bring back a feeling of being alive. They may be looking for a feeling of control over life. They may be exercising a death wish.

The surviving teen who suddenly becomes an over-achiever, the Perfect Kid, may have even more complex reasons for his or her reaction: to shut out the pain, to escape attention (because others will assume they're OK and don't need to be watched for risky behavior), to gain attention (because everyone is thinking of the kid who died), to bargain with God and universe ("If I'm really, really good, no one else will die").

Challenges for grieving teens and what can help

· Feeling safe again in the world. Keeping to old routines and house rules often restores that feeling of safety.

· Understanding the death. Our culture and language has many, many euphemisms for "die" and "dead." Why do we all avoid talking about it? Understanding intellectually and understanding emotionally happen at different times.

· Mourning the death. Telling stories about those we have lost, looking at their pictures, following the rituals of graveside visits, all help.

· Maintaining relationships with those lost; talking to them, writing to them in letters or journals.

· Managing the pain of grief in healthy ways. It takes time and someone's watchful eye to help them with that.

A last bit of advice for helping these teens was to "be their age," inviting them to talk about what happened, but not pushing them until they are ready.

Other resources

Emswiler led discussion with the audience throughout her talk, often using cheerful good humor to make her point. Many of the adults in the audience were themselves recently bereaved of children or spouses. Beth Reilly, a pediatric nurse practitioner and director of the New Haven branch of the Cove, said, "I've been to many of these Cove talks, but this one was probably the most meaningful for me" because of the unusually high loss in our community.

The Cove has a website, The teen program is located in Milford at Platt Regional Vocational Technical School and is directed by Terri Eblen and Sheila Flanagan; For information, call: 878-6365 x408. Other Cove groups, serving children thru grade 8 and their families, meet in New Haven. A book by Mary Ann and James Emswiler, Guiding Your Child through Grief (Bantam Books, 2000) is available as a trade paperback through most bookstores.