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Dealing with Death

Grief: How a Parent Can Help

Healing the Bereaved Child: Grief Gardening, Growth Through Grief, and Other Touchstones for Caregivers
by Alan D. Wolfelt

I Will Remember You: What to Do When Someone You Love Dies: A Guidebook Through Grief for Teens
by Laura Dower, Elena Lister (Introduction)

by Christine Ratliff

I lay in my bed, warm and anxious to sleep. A balmy summer breeze lifted the curtains beside me, dancing with them like a gentle ghost. Staring out the window at the millions of twinkling stars, I felt small and afraid.

In a few short weeks, my junior high days would be over. I was ambivalent about it coming to an end and it frightened me, the way I had no choice in the matter.
Tomorrow night was the freshman prom - my first formal dance. I glanced over at my gown; its antique ivory lace and seashell pink sash shimmered in the moonlight.
How I longed for my sister to come home. A girl needed her big sister on nights like this. I missed the talks we'd once shared, night after night, beside each other in our twin beds.

In just one more week, she'd be a high school graduate. She'd been out, night after night with carloads of her friends, celebrating their impending emancipation.
In two months, she'd head off to college in another state and I'd be alone in our room for the first time ever. Tears slid down my cheeks, dampening my pillow. I wasn't ready for things to change.

Just then, the phone rang downstairs, interrupting my thoughts. It was nearly 11 p.m. - too late for the phone to be ringing on a school night. I ran downstairs to see who it was and found my mother, sobbing on the couch. She looked so small and vulnerable suddenly, ringing her hands, her words choked with tears.
There's been an accident," she managed, in a voice I did not recognize.

"Jenni's been in an accident." I hugged my mother, willing her to calm down. She was beginning to frighten me.

"Mom," I said with certainty, "I'm sure she's fine. She probably just broke her leg or something." My sister, with her flowing, chestnut hair, her lingering scent of perfume that hung in the air of our home long after she'd gone out for the night, was so enchanted with life, so hungry for all it had to offer, that she seemed invincible to me. That night though, while she and her friends rushed home, speeding to make curfew, they crashed head-on into a telephone pole, the force of the impact splitting both car and pole in two.

My sister Jenni was dead. My parents and I could not have been any less prepared.
Grief is a unique process for everyone. After Jenni's funeral, our house swarmed with people bearing more food than any family could possible eat in a year. It looked like a party but the feelings were all wrong. I escaped to a deserted playground with a stolen pack of Kools in my pocket. I longed to punish myself. I sat in the swing and cried, choking on cigarette smoke, expecting my horrible feelings to swallow me up, leaving me dead like my sister.

Desperate to establish some kind of control in the midst of this uncontrollable situation, I made two decisions that day. The first was that I would not eat. I would refuse to nourish my body and allow myself to live while my sister lay buried beneath the ground. The second was that I was a really bad person. Why else would God allow this to happen? Somehow, with these two thoughts clear in my mind, I felt better, less powerless.

My mother, unable to cope with her grief, began drinking gin in the morning instead of coffee. My father, a tough, ex-Marine, the epitome of strength, would attempt to tell jokes, to maintain his same old sense of humor, but tears slid, unacknowledged, down his gaunt cheeks.

We never shared our feelings. Each of us, instead, sought out various unsuccessful methods of appearing strong, of holding up well. We did not see that our reactions were only compounding our misery.

My sister Jenni has been dead for 25 years.
For too long, I traveled a path littered with every possible form of self-destruction. Then, in my early 20's, I discovered that I was pregnant. It took having another heartbeat inside me to even begin to consider the possibility of a life for myself, a future. In loving and caring for my daughter I have learned to love and care for myself. And in watching my daughter grow and experiencing her innocence, I have learned also to forgive myself. I was a child. There were so many things I did not understand.
I wonder how different my life would have been, had I allowed myself to grieve? How big a difference would it have made if I know all of my "crazy" feelings were, in fact, quite typical? What if I'd joined a support group of other teens dealing with similar losses? What if I hadn't tried so hard to be strong?

If we can work together to educate parents, teachers and other caring adults about the process of grieving, the warning signs and possibly catastrophic results of unexpressed grief, perhaps another teenager will handle their loss in a healthier way that I did.
"Although the world is full of suffering," Heller Keller wrote, "It is full also of the overcoming of it."


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