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Facing the Death of Friends

by Karen Callinan

One moment she was laughing. The next she was silenced—forever. Kristina (her friends called her Nina) was 15. She was vacationing with her family at Walt Disney World. At the end of an enjoyable week, they were driving to a restaurant to celebrate their mother's birthday. An oncoming car veered over the median and smashed into the back door—the side where Nina sat.

Nina 's sudden death shocked her schoolmates at Park High in Cottage Grove, Minnesota. Her enthusiasm and energy, expressed with sparkling eyes and warm smiles, had endeared her to many.

One of her friends said, "When grandparents die, it's different. You expect it. But teens aren't supposed to die! That's tougher to handle."

If you lose someone, how are you supposed to work through the pain of saying good-bye? Sadness is a highway with no exit that takes you through a tunnel. You have to go through the pain, though you want to scream, "I must be going crazy!" But sanity will prevail.

This Youth Update is designed to help you or your friends who are hurting. It offers guidelines to help you ask more questions and search for even better ways of dealing with a difficult time.

Signs of Grief

When the news of Nina's death reached Minnesota, Jason heard the news first and told his sister. "No," she said. "I'm sure she's O.K. Your friend probably didn't get the message straight. There must be some mistake!" The news was a shock to her emotional system. Jason's sister went into denial.

Shock also brings numbness and disbelief. Mourners shuffle along like robots on automatic pilot. Suddenly life's a blur of disorganization. School and home life are out of control. A favorite TV show now seems boring. What's going on? Daily life plays out like a movie. You feel like the moviegoer, not the actor. This is the beginning of the grieving process.

In the initial stages of grief, disbelief plays tricks on you. A person can forget and try to contact the loved one. At a party a student waited for her friend to arrive. She remembered and said to the girl next to her, "I keep thinking she's going to come around the corner."

Dr. John Bowlby, a psychiatrist who studied and counseled grieving families at Tavistock Clinic in London, outlined three distinct stages. First comes protest, then denial and shock. Second is pain, the heavy sadness with anger and disorganization. Third is hope, moving on without the one who has died.

The most difficult part of the three stages is dealing with sadness. It isn't a disease but a normal emotion. The pain starts after the shock passes. It moves in such powerful waves that you may feel as though you might drown. Then, just as suddenly, relief comes for a while. Painful moments lessen with healing.

What else is normal in grieving? Crying: It takes courage to show emotion for the loved one. "Hang tough" and other such statements deny feelings.

Flashbacks of the death scene are normal. A 13-year-old described a fatal accident scene as "a videotape that keeps replaying and rewinding over and over again."

Physical symptoms—such as eating too much or too little, sleeping poorly and constant tiredness—are common. Grief wearies the body. At this stage, saying good-bye is very hard.

Ask Questions

When you face such sadness, the "whys" can burst out of you in an anger often directed at God. "Why did God take my friend? My friend was a good person, a leader. I thought God was loving. I need my friend a lot more than God does."

Accidents happen. The body wears out. God prefers not to control you like a puppet. God loves you enough to leave you free.

In one situation a young man, after carrying the casket at his best friend's funeral, had a difficult time going to church. Every time he attended, images of the casket flashed before him. He felt angry at God and didn't want to worship. He had to work through a new understanding of God, heaven, hell, judgment and resurrection. Slowly, he did so.

Frustration might be directed toward the loved one. "Why didn't he wear a seat belt? Why did he die now, when we had so much to say and do?" Those who don't deal with anger might turn to negative behaviors such as drinking, taking drugs or driving recklessly.

Sometimes mourners blame others. "Why didn't the parents or doctors do enough to save my friend's life?" A sad person could even blame himself or herself, asking, "Did I cause this person's death?"

In the midst of all the grief, you may feel guilt. The "if only" questions pop up. "If only I hadn't gotten angry at him for asking my ex-girlfriend to the prom. We never made up. If only I had said I was sorry. Would he have forgiven me?"

Quarrels are a normal part of life. They are part of the give-and-take. And you can't go back.

Other verbal games include the "I wish" trap. You grieve for what wasn't. "I wish I had gotten over my hospital phobia. I wish I had gone to visit her at the hospital. Maybe she would have gotten better."

Questions also take the form of bargaining, a let's-make-a-deal mentality. You might find yourself praying, "Will you help me stand this sadness? If you do, I promise to go to church every Sunday."

With lots of questions and no ready answers, a teen faces an uncertain future. Fears exist: "Will I belong to the same group of friends? Why should I make new friends? It's too hard to have friends who die. Maybe I'll die too!"

Asking these hard questions brings you one step closer to healing.

Support One Other

Sharing the burden of sadness lightens the load. Talk about your loss. Friends are truly friends when they don't tell you everything is O.K. Good friends listen.

Ron Troyer, a funeral home director, says, "Your presence makes a difference. It says, 'I'm here to allow you to feel what you need to feel and to support you through this terrible experience."'

Remembering together can be sitting together in silence. But sometimes words seem necessary at the funeral home. What do you say to a grieving person? Very little. Tony Del Percio, Director of Wulff Family Service and Alpha Care Grief Center, advises simple words such as, "I feel sad." Then share something that you remember about your friend.

Or you can simply say, "I'm really sorry. She was a great friend." Then it will be time to move on so others will have a chance to talk with the family.

Troyer says it's just as well not to say, "If you need anything, call me." From his experience, he knows the grieving family won't call. He prefers, "In a couple of days, I'm going to call you, and I'll do what I can to help." Then do it!

Persons in grief feel lonely. Knowing that you accept their feelings and don't judge them is important. They will value your presence, comfort and support.

What don't you say to a grieving person? Avoid statements of faith. You can't be sure you are echoing the family's own belief. When people feel lost, they may be angry and more sensitive to remarks intended to comfort. Say, "I know how you feel," and they'll be thinking, "You can't." Say, "At least the suffering is over," and they might think, "How can he wish her to be dead?"

Asking questions about personal details may offend. For instance, don't ask, "Why isn't the casket open?" Avoid questions altogether, especially if they come from curiosity rather than compassion.

Counselors and responsible caring adults can help you work out your feelings. They'll bring out suppressed emotions and assist you in understanding grief. They'll also support you through times of deep sadness or depression when you can't function normally. Your friends will be helpful, but if your life changes a lot, you'll need the help of someone with more influence and power.

Talking to friends at school might be difficult too. Some friends won't understand. A grieving teenager doesn't want to be different. You might worry that you'll burst into tears in school (since it has probably happened at home). You may suspect you're acting strange in other ways. A counselor can help you feel comfortable with these fears, which are certainly legitimate. Any positive support you can invite or allow makes it easier to accept a situation which seems negative.

Saying Good-bye

In a Jewish custom called "sitting shiva," the family gathers in a circle to remember how the dead person touched their lives. A mourner described storytelling as helpful in healing: "As we told stories, the good with the bad, we cried together." The act of sharing affirms that the loved one's life was significant.

Visiting the funeral home helps you to confront the reality of saying good-bye. When we view a body, it's a shock. You will feel like crying out, "But I just saw her (or him) alive!"

Wakes (the time of visitation at a funeral home) are an opportunity to stand before death with the helping hands of friends. You can see how much the loved one meant to others. They feel sad too! Wakes also send a message to the numbed senses. Though you think, "This can't be happening to me," you can see that it is.

At the Mass and burial, you can pray and sing together, wishing the loved one the best in his or her new life. These are earthly reminders of a spiritual happening. You will greet the loved one at the door of the church, asking God to lead him or her to heaven. "He is not the God of the dead but of the living" (Matthew 22:32).

During Mass, Scripture readings help you reflect. You ask that your friend will be made holy enough for heaven. For this reason Catholics offer Masses and prayers for the loved one. At the burial site, the priest blesses the grave.

At some burials mourners use visible things to express spiritual realities. When Nina was buried, 50 red and white balloons waved in the wind. First, a red one escaped. A mourner prayed as she watched the lonely balloon ascend, "We let you go, Nina." Then a rush of red and white balloons followed, dancing upward, drifting in the direction of the red speck. She whispered, "We'll follow later."

Regroup and Go On

To Brian Schommer, a pastoral associate in youth ministry, "The biggest key in grieving is learning to accept the reality of death. It's final. I lost my dad when I was three years old. Over the years I have learned that death isn't the end of life. It's part of life. I believe change has to occur. Every day changes and you roll with the changes."

This reshaping of thinking occurs primarily in the last stage observed by Dr. Bowlby. He describes it as hope—the time when more good days than bad return. You finally accept the good-bye as final and set the loved one free.

In that freedom, you can deal with the moment and ask, "What's positive that's happening now?" A teen who helped his mother clean out the closet of his deceased brother went through a painful step. He looked for the positive things about grief. His brother's jacket would warm someone else.

This final stage of grieving is a time to say, "Yes, I can go to a party without my friend and not feel guilty. I can have fun." The loved one isn't abandoned. The person lives on in a new way.

The youth group at Nina's church organized a fund-raiser called Nina's Drive-in Diner. They sold burgers and fries to support the memorial scholarship fund. The money helped students go to college. This is how they kept alive Nina's concern for helping others.

From the beginning to the final stage of grieving, how long does it take a person in mourning to regroup? That depends—on the person and on the circumstances. The tough job is to let go of the bonds that attach you to the deceased.

'The feelings diminish if a person is open and honest," says Del Percio. "Those who avoid the pain and run from dealing with reality have unresolved issues to take care of. Death can stir up a lot of other losses that they had in their lives—losses like divorce, abuse and trauma."

Besides resolving previous losses, a teen is often dealing with death for the first time. "Teens feel so close to their friends, so invulnerable. A sudden death is a tremendous loss. It doesn't happen that often," says Troyer. "They learn that we are mortal beings. That is a shock."

Grieving time also depends on how close you were to the loved one. Did you share a lot of memories? The more the friend's presence filled your life, the bigger the void left by his or her absence. Was the death tragic and sudden? If so, it takes longer to adjust to severe shock.

You never need to be alone in working out your good-bye. Isaiah reminds us all of a comforting God: "Fear not, for I am with you" (43:5).

Death has changed many things. It has moved you through three stages of grieving, a journey from protest through sadness and all its phases, to hope. Along the journey you cried, felt the depth of human warmth and emerged from darkness to behold once again a world vibrant with life from God.

A banner used at a funeral service sums up the experience for both the living and the dead: "Your life is changed, not ended."

Karen Callinan is a writer who contributes articles to youth magazines and teaches religious education classes. She also has said good-bye to friends who have died, including an infant son and her father. During the writing of this article in July 1995, she lost two close relatives and a good friend.

Bill Brady (16), Shannon E. Curtis (16), Susan Huff (16) and Adam Sackenheim (16) were convened by Kelly Huff, coordinator of religous education at St. Peter in Chains Parish in Hamilton, Ohio, to read, critique and question this issue. Shannon is from St. Ann Parish, also in Hamilton, while Bill, Susan and Adam are from St. Peter's. They themselves have not experienced the death of a friend their own age.

 

How You Can Help

Wrlte letters to your friend's family. Tell them how you feel about the loss of your friend and why he or she was so special.

Design a large sympathy card and ask friends to decorate it and write messages of support to the family.

Visit the family of the loved one and offer your help.

Attend the wake and funeral services of your friend. Be there to listen and show that you care.

Organize a memorial fund to support a cause that meant something to your friend.

Make a scrapbook—photos, newspaper clips, souvenirs—about your friend. Share it with your friend's family.

Decorate the grave with personal items, such as favorite flowers of the deceased, little pinwheels, balloons, or notes of farewell protected in plastic bags.

Create an art piece—a painting, banner, or a memory quilt pieced with personalized patches from many friends. Display at church or in a public place.

Start a tradition, if there isn't a Book of Life at your church already. Enter your friend's name and picture and put the book on display for All Saints and All Souls Day. Encourage others to add the names of their loved ones.

Celebrate a Mass or prayer service in honor of your friend. Display your friend's photo, burn a candle, sing your friend's favorite song, pray for the healing of those who grieve and for a blessing on the soul of your friend.

 

Q.

Why can't you make a bargain with God? Isn't God listening? Doesn't God care?

A.

Why do you want to strike a deal? You're tempted to bargain over death because such a loss spins you out of control. This is one of the attempts of the mind to restore order in our disrupted lives. God has no need to bargain. God is a friend. Friends stand by your side, comforting you without any conditions attached. They stay with you and never think of saying, "If you want me to be here, I'll make a deal with you." Jesus showed this kind of caring presence at the death of his good friend, Lazarus. Scripture simply says, "Jesus wept" (John 11:35). Caring usually means helping you work through hard times, not helping you avoid them.

Q.

You have suggested group activities, but what are some positive, active ways to grieve a loved one's death?

A.

Use your time alone to reflect. Ask yourself, "Where has this sorrow taken me? What can I learn from this tragedy?" Write your ideas in a journal. Compose letters to your friend or write poems that express what he or she meant to you. Create music or art pieces. Healing progresses as you challenge yourself to find healthy ways to reflect, create, relax and even laugh a bit. If you have the chance to suggest such things to someone else who is sad at the loss of a friend, you can help that person through grief as well.

Q.

What are good things that come from grieving?

A.

We learn that our view is only one way of looking at life. Grief makes us more sensitive to others. A teen who has learned to be very macho can become more comfortable in expressing his feelings after the death of a friend and he may now appreciate his friendship with a brother and find it easier to say "I love you." He may even find it easier to hug his family. When another loss occurs, he knows he has the ability to cope with loss.

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