Crazy Grief

by Mary Perschy

Grief can make you feel crazy. Every emotion is let loose and comes flooding in, eroding any sense of balance. The normal routine of the most stable individual can be disrupted by bursting into tears or being totally distracted by the pain or loss. There is no shortcut to make the turmoil disappear.

Wrestling with that grief is the goal of the Teen Support Group sponsored by Hospice Services of Howard County [Columbia, Maryland]. Last October, eight teens ranging in ages from 12 through 16, decided to give this group a try.

The nervousness of the first few sessions melded into a sense of comfort; our group had become a safe place for these teens to move through the grieving process. As my fellow co-leader, Anne Barker, and I approached our sixth meeting, supposedly our last, one group member, Lanisha, asked, "Do we have to stop? I wish this group could go on and on and on." Group members agreed, saying that the group is very important to them in their struggle with loss and they didn't want to lose it, too. Thus, the decision was made to continue the group, meeting twice a month. We agreed to open the group to new members, teens who have experienced the death of someone close to them.

During our first few weeks, we had talked about stages of grief, stress management techniques, and coping strategies during the holidays. We shared our stories about the death of our loved ones and its effect on us. The focus of our eighth meeting was, "What advice would we give a grieving teen?" The teens decided to release themselves from the ground rule of confidentiality in order to include their ideas in this article, wanting their first names used.

The ideas came fast and furiously. "Join a teen grief group to help deal with your feelings," Karyn said. Laurie added with a smile, "Yeah . . . I thought my feelings were dumb and was ashamed of them. Then I came to this group and realized that others have the same feelings. When I am with others outside this group, I feel abnormal. Here I feel more secure. I am a normal grieving person."

Karyn continued, "If there is no group around, choose a friend who you think will stick with you. If you don't have one, find a counselor or psychologist to talk with." This suggestion brought a difference of opinion with one girl saying, "My friends would probably think I was weird for talking about family problems," and another girl, agreeing with the first, saying, "When I get upset, my friends are there. They let me talk and understand my pain. They also help me get my mind off it all."

Emphasizing the need to deal with one's grief, Fame warned, "Don't block it [grief] out of your mind, or it gets worse. I write about how I feel in my journal. I can do it anytime I want, and it helps." Lisa agreed, adding, "When I get worked up over things, I write about it. I go back and read it later and see how differently I feel. It's encouraging to see how far I've come."

After the initial shock of her dad's death wore off, Laurie decided to try out for roles in a musical at school. She's also writing a story about a child with leukemia which she plans to enter into a short story contest. Fame, too, is focusing her energy on writing; her story features a widow.

Lisa listens to music. "I don't feel alone when I listen to sad music. When I'm angry, I like loud music. It reminds me that there are a lot of frustrated people out there."

Skateboarding helps Jeremy work through his aggression. "When I'm angry or sad, it makes me happy." Jason's involvement in lacrosse, soccer, and running gets his mind off his problems.

I was thinking of giving up ballet after my brother died," shared Mandy. "I couldn't hold back the feelings when I danced. I just cried and cried. But now, two months later, I feel good when I dance. Since ballet demands one-track thinking, I can redirect my energy this way. I'm doing something for me."

The variety of responses highlighted the fact that there is no one way to grieve. Each person develops his or her unique style.

The taboo against crying in public was discussed. Even though tears play a normal part in the healing of grief, they can be extremely embarrassing. "I feel so awkward if something reminds me of my dad and I start crying in school," said Laurie. "I head for the bathroom until I stop, at least temporarily." She added, emphatically, "I'd rather cry alone." Everyone readily agreed.

As the topic changed to ways others could be helpful to grieving teens, the energy level in the room intensified as each person waited to describe the incidents that have been frustrating for them.

Underlining the sense of separation that grieving teens experience, much resentment was expressed over comments like, "Aren't you over that yet? Didn't your dad die over a month ago?"

"Some people treat me like I have a disease," said Karyn. "They either totally ignore me or, if they do talk, they are afraid to mention the word 'death,' or the person's name." Others in the group complained about people they hardly knew, seeking information, then passing it on to others without a sense of concern.

"If someone would just say they heard my dad died, and did I want to talk, I would know they cared, yet wouldn't feel pressured to respond," says Karyn. "What really helps is a hug from a friend."

One teen, annoyed that her teacher talked about her dad being sick on a day she was absent said, "It would have been better if the teacher had checked with me first. It was eerie to return to class knowing this information had been shared with kids I hardly knew."

Another teen was offended by her teacher's comment a short while after her dad died. "It's been a month now. You ought to start working on your grades." She explained that it isn't over for her yet. "It is so difficult for me to concentrate. I just wish they could understand."

A favorite analogy of the group is the comparison of grief with a broken leg. People don't expect a person with a broken leg to run a marathon in a month, yet they often expect a grieving person to carry on as if nothing has happened.

Some relatives expect too much. "Now you are the man of the family," said to 14-yearold Jason, infuriated the members of the group. When an adult said, "Take care of your mother," to another girl, she wanted to shout, "What about me?" She explained to the group, "I was afraid they would be shocked by such a selfish statement so I said nothing, but I was seething inside." After describing the incident, she ground her soda bottle into her crackers and slowly articulated, "Don't take my grief away."

It takes courage to grieve in a society that mistakenly values restraint, where we risk the rejection of others by being open and different. Open mourners are a select group, willing to journey into pain and sorrow and anger in order to heal and recover. (Tatelbaum, 1980, p. 9)

I have great respect for the courage of these teens who initially took a risk to join a grief group and are continuing to struggle to maintain some balance amid the chaos of grief. Their desire to be there for other teens has greatly inspired me.

Reprinted from "Crazy Grief," pp. 1 & 3, by Mary Perschy in To Make the Road Less Lonely pp 1,3 Winter 1989, Columbia, MD.



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