Is there something wrong if we don’t feel sad when someone dies? What if we do not share the same religious or spiritual beliefs? What if the person who died isn’t your favorite, to begin with? There are many factors involved. We could probably all do with a lot less judgment in our lives, right?
I met a teenaged boy (let’s call him Jake) whose stepfather died unexpectedly. His mother was devastated as was his half-sister because mom had lost her husband and the sister grieved her father. When we met, Jake was more upset with the way he was being judged and treated. Apparently, everyone around his family at the time kept trying to fix him. The well-meaning outsiders determined that since he wasn’t crying or openly upset by his stepfather’s death there was something wrong with him. As a result, these folks insisted that his mother do something about him.
Jake was forced to attend a grief workshop I was facilitating. He came in with a surly attitude. He didn’t want to participate in any of the crafts or writing projects the others were gladly working on. I pulled him aside and asked what was on his mind. He spilled. I listened. I agreed with him. He spoke honestly about how his stepfather treated him as if he were a slave, or worse as if he was in the way. Jake had never felt close to this man. It made sense to me why he wasn’t crying. He was not going to miss the guy one bit. Jake felt sorry and sad for his mother and especially for his little sister. We talked about how he could support his mom and sister through their grief. I encouraged him to sit his mother down and be honest about how he felt about her husband. He realized that was the only way he would get people off his back. He was reluctant to do it for a while but felt trapped that she would be stressing out about him not behaving properly. I promised to speak with her.
When Jake’s mom came to pick him up, she was anxious to find out how Jake had done. First I explained that kids but especially teens do not grieve right away. On average teens’ grief rears its head around 18 months after the death. That is always puzzling to parents and teachers because they don’t understand that the anger and acting out are tied to the death. Secondly, I asked for her assessment of her son’s relationship with her husband. Poor thing hadn’t a clue that her son really never felt connected to her husband. I told her that Jake wanted to speak with her when the time was good for her, but that she needed to back him up and not let others’ judgment push her into expecting more than Jake had to give. I suggested that she needed to concentrate on herself and her daughter, that Jake was fine. She thanked me.
Several months afterward, I got a note in the mail from a grateful teenaged boy. I think of Jake often. I know he is fine. He just needed to be heard and allowed to be honest without judgment.
If you know someone who isn’t acting the way you think they should after a death or other loss, please be supportive without judgment. There is no one right way to grieve. Everyone’s grief journey is unique. Not everyone shares your religious beliefs.
Shirley Enebrad is a Certified Grief Recovery Specialist with 25 years of experience. For her many years of work with pediatric cancer patients and those grieving the loss of a loved one, she received the Jefferson Award for Outstanding Public Service and the Angel of Hospice Award. She is the author of Six-Word Lessons on Coping with Grief and Six-Word Lessons for Surviving a Devastating Diagnosis.
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