“I want to have a relationship with my mom, because she’s my mom,” fourteen-year-old Haley told Ann, the counselor.
Haley’s mom didn’t have custodial rights to her daughter because of a mental illness that on occasion made it unsafe for Haley to be around her. Haley lived with her dad, who didn’t allow her to spend any time with her mother—he thought he was saving his daughter from an abusive relationship.
But having no relationship with her mom was a significant loss for Haley, a loss her dad hadn’t realized was so profound.
“I recognize my mom’s not safe for me,” Haley explained to Ann, “but this is a big loss. Yes, she has these mental health problems, but that’s not my full experience with my mother. The truth is, she’s not safe to be with for about ten minutes a week, but we just can’t predict when those ten minutes will be. Is there a way that you can help me have a relationship with my mom so I don’t have to lose her?”
Ann helped Haley and her dad come up with a plan. Since Haley and her mom—who was normally a loving, affectionate, and encouraging mother—enjoyed painting together, they decided that a weekly art session would work to keep the relationship intact. Then Ann taught Haley how to look for signs that her mom might be about to have a mental health episode. If that happened, she was to cut the visit short. Her father would drive Haley to her mom’s house but then wait for her in the car, ready to take her home at a moment’s notice.
Haley’s father hadn’t realized that his desire to protect his daughter had also created a deep loss for her.
As you can see from Haley’s story, loss comes in many shapes and sizes. But the storms of significant losses have one thing in common: they can rock your child’s boat. We need to help our kids deal with the shock and grief that follow in the wake of significant losses—the kind of losses that all of us, young and old, are likely to encounter at some point in our journey. As parents, we want to equip our kids with a boat that won’t capsize when the storms of life hit.
Facing the Inevitable
Loss and grief are universal human experiences. Everybody knows this. Strange, then, that death and disaster always seem to catch us by surprise. We don’t see them coming because we don’t want to look. And we don’t want to look because we know it’s going to hurt. What we fail to realize is that the pain will only get worse further down the road if we don’t take the time to stare it in the face right now.
Odd as it may sound, you can get a head start on suicide-proofing your kids by helping them confront the inevitability of loss from the very beginning. Naturally, we’re not talking here about tossing them into the deep end of the swimming pool before they’re ready for it. Instead, we’re referring to a slow, gradual, age-appropriate process that leaves kids with a basic understanding of a fundamental truth: while the world can rob us of many beautiful and meaningful things, it can never take away the dignity and purpose we possess as children of God.
Concrete versus Existential Losses
It’s easy to associate the idea of grief almost exclusively with the death of a loved one. That’s huge, of course, yet it isn’t the whole story. Deep loss can touch the human psyche at almost every level and in almost every area of life. There are, in fact, two basic categories of loss: the concrete and the existential. Let’s take a closer look and see how they compare.
Concrete losses involve separation from real people and real things in the external, concrete, physical, visible world. Here are a few examples:
- Death of a parent, sibling, extended family member, or close friend
- Rejection by friends (including bullying)
- A major life transition: a move to a new town, new school, new community
- Financial hardship due to a parent’s loss of employment
- Loss of home due to foreclosure or inability to pay rent
- Breakup with boyfriend or girlfriend
- Disappointment or failure in sports or academics
- Death of a pet
- Parents’ divorce
- Injury or serious illness
- Church split or moral failure on the part of spiritual leaders
An existential loss is a loss that the individual feels and experiences on the inside, whether or not there is any corresponding loss in the external, physical world. There’s a great deal of overlap between the two categories; most if not all concrete losses will also have an existential dimension. For this reason, existential loss could also be defined as the emotional or psychological impact of a concrete loss. A listing of such losses could be extended almost indefinitely, but it would certainly include the following:
- Loss of self-respect
- Loss of hopes and dreams
- Loss of meaning, significance, or purpose
- Loss of identity during adolescence (due to physical and hormonal changes, peer rejection, and any number of related issues)
- Loss of the freedom to be oneself after puberty (especially for girls, due to pressure to adopt a more sexualized persona)
- Loss of individuality (due to pressure to conform)
- Loss of choices or control (often leading to eating disorders or cutting)
- Loss of security (due to loss of parent, home, or finances)
- Loss of faith and trust; whether in parents, adults, society, the church, or God
- Loss of social group or support system (due to transition or peer rejection)
- Loss of parents, mentors, and role models
- Loss of peace, routine, and a sense of balance
- Loss of childhood innocence
- Loss of imagination and creativity
- Loss of independence
Expected versus Unexpected Losses
Some losses are more shocking than others because they seem to come out of the blue. The death of an eighty-five-year-old grandmother who had cancer may leave you hurting and grieving, but since it was expected, it’s not as shocking as the sudden and untimely loss of a sibling or child.
Unexpected losses are like emotional blind spots. They catch us off guard because they simply aren’t on our radar screen. If you or your child has been hit by one of these bombshells, you need to remember that it’s okay to cry and grieve. The healing process will be quicker if you meet the pain head-on.
Unhealthy Reactions to Grief
People experience loss and express grief in their own unique ways. Personal reactions are all over the map. As the late Dr. Elisabeth Kübler-Ross put it, “Our grief is as individual as our lives.”1 Some reactions are helpful and productive, but others can drive a person further toward the brink of despair. A key principle to remember is that unprocessed pain gets internalized and eventually comes out in some less constructive form. Here’s a list of some of undesirable consequences of significant loss:
- Self-medication (with drugs, alcohol, pornography, or some other addictive behavior)
- Self-blame, shame, and guilt
- Difficulty sleeping
- Questioning God and one’s faith
- Increased worry and fear
- Fatigue and nausea
- Weight loss or gain
- Lowered immunity
- Chest pains
These unhealthy reactions can be exacerbated even further by complicated grief, a type of grief people experience when they suffer two or more significant losses within a very short time frame. Experiencing the death of a loved one followed soon after by job loss or a devastating fire in the home, for example, is complicated grief. This type of grief is often associated with complicated situations such as death by a violent act, car accident, murder, or suicide. It’s what happens when a person isn’t able to work his way through the implications of one disaster before getting hit with another. This can produce a sense of utter hopelessness and a loss of the will to live.
Complicated grief can also refer to grief that isn’t appropriately processed within a reasonable amount of time—two to three years in most cases. For reasons of their own, some people simply refuse to let go of their pain. This tendency can become a recipe for despair and disaster if allowed to go unchecked.
Moving Forward: Positive Ways of Grieving
Here’s the good news: there’s a healthy, constructive way to grieve. All of us—adults, children, and teenagers alike—can learn to work our way through experiences of painful loss and come out stronger on the other side. It just takes patience and perseverance.
It’s generally agreed that while grief is never fully done, there are some essential aspects of growing and becoming well again after difficult losses. Here are the basic steps involved in that process:
Accept the reality of the loss. Take steps to overcome the natural denial response. In the case of a death, it can help to view the body and attend the funeral and burial services. Whatever form the loss takes, it’s always a good idea to spend time openly talking about it. Don’t confuse acceptance with emotional stability. Returning to emotional normalcy is something that comes only with the passage of time.
Experience the pain of grief. Many people try to bypass the pain of loss by bottling up their emotions or rejecting their feelings. The only way to overcome grief is to move with and through it daily as the feelings ebb and flow. Fully experiencing the pain—most often through tears or some form of expression—provides genuine relief.
Adjust to the new environment. This may require the grieving person to assume some of the responsibilities and social roles formerly fulfilled by a deceased loved one. In other situations, it can mean getting used to a new school or a new neighborhood.
Invest the emotional energy you have in healthy and life-giving relationships. Stay engaged with life. The goal here is not to deny the significance of your loss. On the contrary, it’s to reach the point where you can remember without getting stuck. New friendships can help you move forward in spite of sorrow and pain.
The important thing is to allow time and space for grieving and growing. There’s no timetable for this process. The more you’re willing to grieve, the sooner you’ll get through it. If your kids have suffered some kind of loss, encourage them to participate in a recovery program, seek out a mentor, or perhaps set aside a few hours weekly to pray, journal, or reflect on their grief.
Keeping Short Accounts
The best way to prevent grief from morphing into suicidal thoughts and actions is to keep short accounts. Acknowledge the pain and deal with it right away. If you or your kids are hit by a devastating loss, don’t try to convince yourselves that it’s no big deal, or that you need to stay strong and not disappoint the rest of the family, or other such thoughts. Instead, make up your minds to plunge straight into the sadness, and then keep on swimming until you reach the other side. It may hurt for a while, but it’s far better than any of the alternatives.
- Elizabeth KÜbler-Ross and David Kessler, On Grief and Grieving: Finding the Meaning of Grief Through the Five Stages of Loss (New York: Simon and Schuster, 2005), 7.