One moment she was laughing. The next she was
silencedforever. 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 doorthe
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
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 symptomssuch as eating too much
or too little, sleeping poorly and constant tirednessare
common. Grief wearies the body. At this stage, saying good-bye
is very hard.
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
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
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
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
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
This reshaping of thinking occurs primarily
in the last stage observed by Dr. Bowlby. He describes it
as hopethe time when more good days than bad return.
You finally accept the good-bye as final and set the loved
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
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
dependson 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 liveslosses like divorce, abuse and
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
A banner used at a funeral service sums up the
experience for both the living and the dead: "Your life
is changed, not ended."
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.