When Teenagers Lose a Parent

BY: Helen Fitzgerald


Over the years, I have met with many teens who were struggling with personal losses of one kind or another, but by far the greatest number were trying to adjust to the death of a parent. The unique relationship between parent and child makes such a loss painful at any age. But to have a parent die when you're a teenager is especially difficult.

Why is the death of a parent so devastating to a teen? I think the explanation lies in the process that we call adolescence. In these teenage years, you are moving from childhood to adulthood; a big step, involving lots of changes, both physical and psychological. For the parent, adolescence means a gradual transfer of power, the loosening of bonds. For the teenager, it means acquiring and using power in stages that permit movement toward becoming a self-assured adult. As in any transfer of power, things don't always go smoothly. Family members may not even like each other very much during this time. Quarreling, fighting, or screaming are not uncommon. If a parent dies during these crucial, turbulent years, it can leave a teenager with unfinished business--things left unsaid or undone.

An example of unfinished business would be an ongoing struggle between a mother and daughter that is left unresolved when the mother dies. Suddenly, the daughter finds herself wracked with guilt. She feels guilty about not listening to her mother, guilty about things she said, and guilty about not spending more time with her mother when she was terminally ill. Parents have huge, forgiving hearts and would never want their children troubled by such memories. But how do you forgive yourself?

If a parent dies during these crucial, turbulent years, it can leave a teenager with unfinished business--things left unsaid or undone.


Here is an approach I have found to be helpful. Take out a piece of paper and write down everything that is making you feel guilty. Then go through your list and strike through all those items that are merely regrets. Regrets are wishes--things we wish we had done or said. For example, you may feel bad if you didn't have a chance to say good-bye, but there is no reason to feel guilty about that. That is a regret about circumstances you could not control. It's right to recognize your sadness about the way things turned out, but wrong to blame yourself. As you go through your list, you will eliminate a lot of things that you clearly need not feel guilty about.

On the other hand, perhaps items on your list involve hurtful actions you took that really merit some measure of guilt. Guilt is an action word. It is something you said or did that you feel badly about now. For instance, if you hit your father, or knowingly wounded your mother with words, that is something anyone would feel guilty about. Find someone you trust to share this list with--someone who will hear you out and not change the subject. You can't apologize directly to your parent any longer, but you may be surprised at the relief that comes from just admitting out loud that you were wrong.


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