Through the hard times
Emotional support system helps bereaved teens find solace, comfort
Ansley Dawson was 15 and in grade 10 when her mother was diagnosed with ovarian cancer.
While it would be only four years later that her mother would lose her battle with cancer, Dawson says her grieving process began as a teen, knowing her mother was dying.
In her eyes, everyone else still had a healthy mom who was actively involved their lives. During her highschool years, the focus of Dawson’s life at home was taking care of her ailing mother.
“All of a sudden I fell completely out of depth with kids my age,” recalls Dawson, now 27 and married. “I felt like I was not a normal teenager and it became really difficult to relate to my friends.”
This sentiment is typical of teenagers dealing with grief, says Jacqueline Menagh, program coordinator with the Toronto chapter of Bereaved Families of Ontario. Adolescence is a period of heightened self-consciousness and being isolated by grief can be particularly painful.
“When you think that in a public school of 1,500 to 2,000 kids they may be the only one who has lost a family member, you understand how significant this can be.”
Dawson was 19 and in her first week at university when her mother passed.
“When my mother died I was very, very angry,” Dawson says. “My friends were going to parties and class … it made me angry with how normal their lives were.”
Dawson said after her mother’s passing, she began pushing friends away. “They had no idea how to talk to me and I was too afraid to bring it up,” she said. “Then when they would pretend there was nothing wrong it made me even more angry.”
At school, a professor wasn’t understanding when Dawson explained why she wasn’t prepared for class. But being so young, Dawson says she didn’t have the emotional maturity to speak out, so she didn’t bring it up again.
Emotional support is critical but hard to find. Their peers have likely never experienced a significant loss (most of us don’t until we are well into our 20s when a grandparent dies) and they have no idea what the person is going through.
Dawson herself says she didn’t know what to do when confronted with her peers’ grief.
“I remember two kids who lost their parents when I was in school,” Dawson says. “Everybody avoided them because they had no idea how to talk to them.”
For many teens who have lost a parent or sibling, they also lose the emotional support of their parent(s), who are struggling with their own grief, Dawson says.
“They effectively end up orphaned.”
At the Toronto branch of Bereaved Families of Ontario, Dawson said she found a place to talk about her experience and feelings with kids her age who understood and could relate. “It completely changed my life,” Dawson says. “I met others who were juggling the same emotions I had and saw that I was not the only one dealing with something.”
Teens can also be afraid to move on with life due to guilt or fears of forgetting their loved one.
“I remember thinking I’ve go so much longer to live, what if I forget her?” Dawson recalls. “Lots of people had similar fears so we talked about how to commemorate a person in your life so you can feel they are always there.”
She also learned to understand that people do care, they just don’t always know the best approach.
“It made me confident in talking about my grief,” Dawson says.
Though the services provided by Bereaved Families of Ontario are fairly simple, the benefits are profound, Menagh says.
“We provide a safe space where people can go and share all of the emotions they are dealing with.”
Each eight-week program is split by age with a specific youth group for teens ages 13-17, and facilitated by an adult who has experienced a significant loss at that age. The organization relies on donations so the programs are free.
“Teens get together in a group where the one commonality is that they have all experienced the death of a loved one,” Menagh explains.
Dawson’s experience with Bereaved Families of Ontario was so life-changing, she agreed to participate in training and become a group facilitator for other teens struggling with grief. Five years later, she continues to run groups and has changed her career plan from research biology to the field of child and adolescent mental health.
“It was such a powerful experience for me to go through as a young person and I am so much stronger because of it. I found I was really able to honour my mom’s memory and the experiences that we went through together.”
If you know someone who is struggling with grief, Dawson offers some advice.
“Let them talk. Make sure they know you aren’t afraid of their grief. Assure them that you are not going anywhere.”
“We are a death-denying society,” Dawson adds.
“Talking about it and acknowledging it is a huge step to helping people.”
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