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How to support a grieving teen

WATCH ABOVE: A registered psychologist who specializes in grief recovery gives parents specific tools to help their teen navigate the pain of an unexpected loss.

It’s been nearly two weeks since a catastrophic collision claimed the lives of 16 Humboldt Broncos players and staff members. The tragedy has left many families in grief, including the victims’ teenage siblings, friends, teammates and classmates.

Global News reached out to Ashley Mielke, registered psychologist and the founder of The Grief and Trauma Healing Centre, to find out how parents can support their teens during such a difficult time.

Laurel Gregory: Do teens grieve differently than adults?

Ashley Mielke: Teens, like the rest of us, experience grief in their own unique and individual way. I would even say that they tend to process and express emotions a lot more naturally than adults do, because they have less experience avoiding and pushing away painful feelings. As adults, we become so used to intellectualizing everything, that we often feel emotionally ill-equipped when we experience a major loss.

READ MORE: Celebration of life in Edmonton honours 4 Humboldt Broncos players

LG: How does loss shape them?

AM: Like any major life experience, significant loss shapes us in some way. The impact of this loss will vary based on the teen and his or her particular relationship to those who died or were injured, in the case of the Humboldt accident. There are no specific guidelines or expectations for how much a loss will impact a teen, so it is important to validate their unique reaction.

Loss is an inevitable life experience that we will all have at some point. If we learn the tools at a young age, to heal in a healthy way, we truly gain a level of emotional depth, maturity and understanding that will serve us in processing future losses.

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READ MORE: How can you help family through the trauma of the Humboldt bus crash? Talk about it

LG: What should parents expect?

AM: It is important for parents of these teens to let go of all expectations about what they think their teen should be feeling or how they think their teen should be acting. Every relationship is unique; therefore, every griever is unique.

With that said, some common reactions include: a feeling of numbness that can last minutes, hours or days, a reduced ability to focus, changes in eating and sleeping, a roller coaster of emotion, loss of energy, isolation and even frequent crying.

It is also normal to feel sad, scared, angry, or any other emotion that may arise for them. As time goes on, there will be different degrees of feelings over the event.

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LG: What kind of red flags should parents watch for ?

AM: Some signs of unresolved grief include skipping school, dropping out of school, sleeping a lot throughout the day, a deterioration in relationships with family members and friends, spending a lot of time on their phone, avoiding people and places that remind them of the loss, irritability and excessive anger, and any risk-taking behaviours like alcohol and drug use, fighting, or getting into trouble with the law.

READ MORE: SJHL’s trauma assistance program to support people affected by Humboldt Broncos crash

LG: What can parents do to support their teens?

AM: 

  • Be patient with them. Don’t force them to talk. Give them time to process what has happened and make sure to plant healthy seeds about talking about feelings.
  • Tell the truth about how you feel about what’s happened. Sharing your feelings establishes a tone of trust and will make your teen feel safe to open up about their feelings. It communicates to your teen that it’s okay to feel. Not talking about it makes it a taboo subject, and that is not helpful to them.
  • Recognize that grief is emotional. It is not an intellectual experience or a sign that something is wrong. Whatever feelings they are experiencing are completely normal and natural.
  • Remember that your child had a unique relationship with the loss. Their experience will be unique and individual based on their relationship to those who died, so it is important to let go of expectations about how you think they should be feeling.
  • Listen with your heart, not your head. Allow all emotions to be expressed without judgement and without trying to fix them. Feelings need to be heard not fixed.
  • Remember that your teen is very intelligent and in touch. Treat their experience and their feelings with respect and dignity as you would like to be treated by others.
  • Consider booking an appointment with a grief therapist. In many cases, teens feel much safer and more willing to open up with a therapist. This is totally normal. The goal is to offer them the support they need during a painful time.
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Watch below: How to deal with grief in the wake of the Humboldt Broncos tragedy

How to deal with grief in the wake of the Humboldt Broncos tragedy
How to deal with grief in the wake of the Humboldt Broncos tragedy

LG: What should parents avoid?

AM: 

  • Avoid saying “don’t feel bad.” Feeling bad is normal and natural after a significant loss. It is a healthy reaction to feel bad, sad, angry, or any other emotion after a loss.
  • Don’t ask: “How are you doing?” Like adults, fearful of being judged, they will automatically say “fine” even if they are not.
  • Avoid asking: “What’s wrong?” This implies that sad feelings are not normal. Your teen will automatically say “nothing.”
  • Avoid saying: “Be strong.” This communicates that non-feeling is something they are supposed to do. It is important to encourage feelings rather than inhibit them.
  • Don’t say: “Everything will be okay.” We shouldn’t make promises we can’t keep. We don’t know what the future holds, so instead, honour the feelings they have in the moment and communicate that you will do what you can to love and support them through it.

The Grief and Trauma Healing Centre is offering free counselling to friends and family members dealing with loss as a result of the bus crash. For more information click here.