Illness and Death in the Extended Family, Part Two—Older Children and Teens

I wrote earlier today, introducing this topic of helping our children to cope with the illness and death of a family member. Many of our children have been shielded from death and it can be confusing, overwhelming and traumatic. With older children and teens, they may be expected to understand more or participate on a more personal level and there are ways we parents can help older kids learn healthy ways of coping and dealing with grief and the stress that can surround an illness and death.

I have found the important thing to remember is that each of our children is different. They are not blank slates waiting for us to tell them how to feel or how they should react. Even though they may not have been through such a thing before, they will each come at it from their own perspective. For example, in my family—one of my children likes to turn to her friends to talk things through and avoid the family stuff and heavy details while another wants to be right in the middle of things—she needs to see the people involved, wants to be part of knowing what is going on medically, etc. They each have their own way and I needed to learn that neither one is better or worse.

Older children and teens may have harder, more detailed questions than the young ones. While young ones may be trying to grasp the very concept of death, older kids may feel that it more directly relates to them. I was surprised recently when my seventeen-year-old wanted to know exactly what all the equipment was for and what all the flashing numbers meant on the equipment that was connected to her ill great-grandfather. She wanted to understand what was going on in a very real sense.

Older children and teens can also be good company and support for other family members and getting involved with helping can be extremely therapeutic for everyone. They can help prepare meals, run errands, or look after the younger children and having something important to do can help them to feel how integral they are to the extended family and how connected they truly are.

Remember that even though an older child or teenager may have been through an illness or family member’s death before, they will still need to grieve and process and it might look different than it has before. Expect that new questions will arise and the child will bring his or her own past experiences to the current one as well.