The Gift of Presence

It was only mid-November, but Bryon’s family had already noticed the tension building in their home. It would be their first Christmas since the cancer took their little girl; his 14-year-old sister. The season stalked him like a cougar in a mountain forest; pursuing him, with pain its only goal. Friends spoke of anticipated family-gatherings, work-parties, and shopping for gifts. Joy in the season, while all Bryon could feel was rage. It wasn’t fair. It didn’t make sense. The pain was palpable and the overwhelming sense of finality and impotence to change his circumstances, threatened to suffocate him.

This story is a reminder that every year, many teenagers experience the collision of joy at Christmas, as it slams into their reality of loss due to death. I recently watched a video where teens expressed their feelings associated with death. One 15-year-old named Tommy said, “the hardest thing isn’t losing the memories I have with my mom, the hardest thing is the memories that I won’t be able to have with her in the future.” Loss leaves a hole, but it also continues to make holes in lives, because of absence. For Tommy and many like him, it’s not only the loss in the past, it’s the loss the day he gets his driver’s license. The loss at his high-school graduation, the loss on his birthday and yes – for many – the pain-filled loss felt at Christmas.

One of the problems with being a teenager, is that your age is too often associated with your emotions and behaviours. Too emotional, “Well, she’s 15, what do you expect.” Too angry, “The testosterone must be working overtime.” Too sexual, “Must be those teen hormones.” When adults come to believe that simply being a teenager is the catch-all reason for adverse behaviour or emotional fluctuation, they risk missing the grief that can profoundly shape a person’s reality. Assuming a teen is moody, rather than investigating emotional fluctuation can be a recipe for disaster. Suicidal thinking is often associated with loss. Dismissing emotional variation as ‘typical’ teen behaviour, dehumanizes and diminishes the painful reality of grief, so common to human experience. If you have a teen in your life who’s grieving, you might consider some of the following.

Grief expression is like a finger-print.

I don’t know where I found this phrase, but it’s not mine. I liked it as soon as I saw it. It reminds us that there’s no pressure to grieve properly. Grief is personal and teens, like the rest of us, need to know that it’s ok to grieve in ways that make sense to them, without feeling pressure to be like someone else in the home who seems to be managing with a smile.

Grief takes its own sweet time.

In my work as a pastor with grieving women and men, it’s not uncommon for people to ask me, “How long will I feel like this?” My answer is typically something like, “I guess until you’re done grieving.” It’s not a bad idea to give the teen in your life permission to take as long as they need to grieve. There’s no need to rush and there’s certainly no reason to say, “It’s been long enough – get over it.” Grieving through pain is not the same as ‘getting over it’ – it’s just coming to a place of acceptance and hope, that life can go on.

Grief needs space.

Teachers have a phrase that they whisper when parents are out of range. ‘Helicopter parent’ is a derogatory term that means a parent is a pain in the backside. Hyper-involved, over-protective, hovering like a helicopter over everything a teacher does. Sometimes, I’ve been a helicopter parent. Like my son’s first day of school. I followed the school bus all the way to town, just to make sure he was safe. Following a school bus is fairly innocuous, but hovering daily over a teen who’s grieving can compound the pain. Making space for grieving means fewer questions, better listening, and more support from the sidelines through your presence, your unconditional love, and your prayers.

A few years ago, I officiated at the funeral of a newly married young man. As you might imagine, his partner was devastated. On the night before the funeral, family gathered to express their condolences. I sat quietly, feeling useless as I watched the young widow vacillate between sobbing and silence. On occasion, I would refill her water glass. I made sure she had enough Kleenex. I greeted family, prayed, and sat. The next day I honoured his life, prayed again and spoke a few words at the graveside. Driving home after the funeral, I felt disappointed. My caregiving seemed empty. Weeks later, I received a card from the widow. In it she wrote, “Thank you for all you did for me at the funeral. I can’t imagine this experience without your presence.” Those brief words have given shape to my grief-support to this day and I leave them with you, as you consider how you might support the grieving teen in your life. Take care not to underestimate the healing power of your silent presence. It may very well be the greatest gift you ever give to a teen living with the pain of loss.