Teens & Inappropriate Reactions to Death

One relative worries about her nephew's reactions to the death of his mother.

Q. "Recently, my sister-in-law died of cancer. This sounds strange, but I never saw her 13-year-old son cry or be upset about her death, even at the funeral. Instead, he cracked jokes and made sarcastic comments. I think some of our family found his behavior inappropriate -- should I be worried?"

A. There are lots of reasons to worry about a 13-year-old whose mother recently died of cancer. This child, in the midst of puberty, will now face his teen years and young adulthood without his mother. This situation is not supposed to happen.

Sure, it was a tad odd and a bit inappropriate that he cracked jokes and made sarcastic comments. But with no experience to draw from, he behaved as he likely does when he's out of his comfort zone. The death of his mother sent him far beyond his realm of experience, emotionally and intellectually. He needs members of his family to guide him lovingly.

Getting Through the Grief

His father probably won't be the one to offer this young man the support he needs. He's facing too much grief himself. He may need you or a professional grief counselor to guide him through mourning. He needs people to coach him in such situations as to how to behave; he needs people to model accepted cultural norms and even point them out to him.

The emotions that he is experiencing include are overwhelming. All of these emotions baffle the most mature person. The people closest to him need to ask him, "How are you feeling? What's going on with you today? Are you feeling sad? Mad? Lonely? Bewildered?"

When he can identify his emotions and put a name on each of them, then he won't feel so out of control. His jokes and sarcasm provided a way for him to cover up or mask his emotions.

Routinely Celebrate Her Life

Another way for family members to help this young man is to talk about his mother. Put her life, illness, and death into a story. Each person who knew her experienced her life, illness, and death differently. If they can share their story with your nephew then he'll take it upon himself to create his own story which will help his mental health as he faces the grief and loss of his mother.

Your nephew has a huge wound of grief to mend. It will take years. With each birthday, holiday, and each major life event -- prom, graduation, and marriage -- that wound will reopen and grief will occur anew. So if you're at a family gathering and this young man starts in with jokes and sarcasm, quietly walk up to him, put your arm around his shoulder and ask him, "What's going on? How are you feeling?"

If you or someone else close to him can encourage him to take time every day to remember his mother, and grieve, he'll fare better through the emotional roller coaster of his loss. In time he'll not need to grieve every day but only weekly and then monthly.

Jan Faull, MEd, is a veteran parent educator and the author of four parenting books, including Darn Good Advice -- Baby and Darn Good Advice -- Parenting. She writes a biweekly parenting advice column for this site and a weekly parenting advice column in the Seattle Times. Jan Faull is the mother of three grown children and lives in the Seattle area.

Originally published on HealthyKids.com, July 2006.

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