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10 Tips on Helping Teenagers and Young Adults Cope With a Death in the Family

08/18/2014 10:30 pm ET | Updated Oct 18, 2014

Our grandson, Ryan, an eigth grader, told me last night that he will have football practice the entire month of August. The comment tugged at my heart and reminded me of another era. It seems like only yesterday that our son, Scott, was working out with his team, getting ready for the beginning of his junior year and a new season of playing quarterback for Pittsford Sutherland High School in Rochester, New York.

Little did we know that only one year later the team would be playing with black armbands over their jerseys in honor of their fallen teammate, who was killed in an auto accident. Watching family and friends prepare to return to school reminds me of Scott and the drive to football practice. I miss that I was never able to send him off to college and anticipate his letters and calls.

Going back to school is a tough time for bereaved parents and siblings. Leaving the familiar and going to a new experience or even going back to a setting or school one has already attended can be tough. After a death nerves are raw and emotions are high. Parents often experience feelings around loss of control and over compensate, causing their kids to feel too controlled: "Take care of your health, drive carefully, keep your cell phone on. Call if you have a problem." The anxiety can be palpable.

College bound students express concern for their parents, wondering if it is safe to leave. After a death they worry that parents won't be able to cope with an empty house. Surviving parents often have to give strong encouragement for a young adult to leave for college. As one girl told me, "I was going to school on the West Coast, but I decided to go to a nearby Junior College as I want to make sure my mom is okay." Her mom told me, "I have been telling her that it is okay to leave, and that I will be just fine."

This conversation is not unusual. It is normal for bereaved teenagers and young adults to experience some regression after a death. One of our friend's daughters died of a massive infection while attending her first year of college. Her younger sister was scheduled to go to college the following year, but with her parents blessings she decided to take a "gap year," giving her more flexibility and the opportunity to visit home. This year she will be leaving for college feeling more prepared for the experience and not feeling she is deserting her parents.

College Students

Returning to or starting college can be challenging for bereaved kids. The location of the school may be hundreds of miles from their support system and fellow students may not we aware of the loss or can only identify on a superficial level, as they may not have known the deceased.

When my daughters, Heidi and Rebecca, returned to the University of Utah after their brother was killed they found after only a few weeks their friends became impatient and wanted them to "return to normal." Heidi eventually transferred to a school closer to home, and Rebecca went on a study abroad program in Europe.

High School Students

Our 14 year-old high school daughter had a different experience. Heather attended high school at the same school her brother had attended. Rather than getting too little attention she got too much. Scott's friends tried to "take care" of her and she sometimes found the attention overwhelming. Teachers were mixed. Her math teacher, not realizing that it is often difficult to compute numbers after a loss, called me to complain that Heather was, "too busy socializing." Her English teacher said that she was slow in her writing assignments and when I met with him and explained that she had lost her brother he replied, "Well, we have all lost parents."

Thirty years ago it was unusual to find grief support in the schools, but today many schools have access to grief and trauma experts and many college campuses offer grief counseling and some have chapters of National Students of AMF Support Network, a grief group founded by David Fajgenbaum, MD, MSc, following the death of his mother.

10 things you can do when sending bereaved kids back to school:

  1. Start by checking your own response. Are you feeling overly anxious about your child returning to school? If so, seek counseling or talk to a trusted friend.
  2. Where appropriate notify your child's teacher and school administrators of the loss.
  3. Discuss with your child what they might expect when they get back to school.
  4. Make them aware that not all people will be able to deal with their loss in a helpful way. Old friends will leave and new friends will come into their life.
  5. Where possible visit the school with your child prior to opening and walk around the campus and halls with them.
  6. Talk with your child about their schedule and mentally walk them through their first day of school.
  7. If living at home offer to help them set out their clothes.
  8. Let them know that you are available. If you are an Internet user suggest that you will be available to text or snap chat.
  9. Don't be upset if your child chooses not to "friend" you on Facebook.
  10. If you choose to connect by cell phone set a time to talk, and if on occasion they fail to answer try not to panic.