Area parents learn the intricacies of teen grief
In the wake of two recent teen deaths in North County, about 80 local parents gathered Dec. 2 at Torrey Pines High School for a community workshop called “How Teens Grieve.”
Led by Ken Druck, bereavement expert and founder of the Jenna Druck Foundation, and Dr. Lori Rappaport, a clinical psychologist specializing in grief, trauma and bereavement for youths and families, the workshop addressed the differences in how teens and adults respond to the grief that comes from a tragic loss.
Druck began the presentation by telling a story not about the death of his daughter, Jenna, who was killed in a bus accident in 1996 at age 21, but about how Jenna responded to the death of a friend at age 16 and how her actions influenced him as a parent.
In 1991, a friend of Jenna’s committed suicide, which shocked both Jenna and her father.
“This was the age of innocence,” he said. “There was no frame of reference for that happening.”
Trying to comfort his daughter, Druck was stopped.
“Jenna told me: ‘Dad, don’t try to say anything or get me to look at this or feel a certain way. You can’t fix this, you can’t spin this, you can’t push rewind.’ ”
This interaction had a profound effect on Druck and his understanding of how teens cope with loss.
“As parents, we’ve learned to put a spin on everything. That’s what we do as parents — isn’t it our job to fix everything, to be the fountain of knowledge?”
The struggle many parents face, Druck said, is that they don’t know how to simply “be with” their children and help them through the grieving process while still honoring their space and needs.
“The challenge is to teach our children to deal with life’s losses, which can be as simple as a loss on the football field or not being invited to a birthday party to the loss of a friend and the loss of life,” Druck said.
By not allowing children time to grieve in their own way, Rappaport added, “We mean well as parents and we want them to be happy, but we’re really not helping them by saving them from loss.”
Rappaport, who also serves as staff psychologist with the Jenna Druck Foundation’s “Families Helping Families” program, spoke about the tragic death of Alex Capozza, a 17-year-old Torrey Pines student killed in a car accident in Rancho Santa Fe in early October.
Capozza’s death has affected the entire Torrey Pines High School community, she told the audience. “It impacts each person differently. Your child might be on the periphery, not a close personal friend, but still be very affected.”
Rappaport then expanded her approach, discussing the differences in how children and adults manifest their grief.
Adults, she explained, have a frame of reference to deal with loss, while children often will put up a wall after a tragic event, manifesting their grief as frustration, anger and irritability until they are cognitively able to process what happened.
“Initially, they seem to do OK for the most part,” Rappaport said. “For a few weeks or couple of months, everything seems normal.”
That period of normalcy, when they appear unaffected by loss, is followed often by anxiety, loss of focus and motivation, feelings of alienation and irritability, as grief begins to take hold.
Parents can support their children, explained Rappaport, by not pestering them with questions and trying to “fix” the problem or taking the child’s lashing out personally, but by simply observing their child’s behavior and being available to talk.
“Kids really don’t sit and process and get over it,” Rappaport said. “When kids are depressed, they don’t get in bed and pull the covers up and cry, they get pissed off and angry, and as a parent, you can’t say the right thing.”
Rappaport and Druck suggested that parents stay in close communication with their children’s teachers, as well, who often see actions and behaviors the parents do not.
Audience member Peggy Yamamoto spoke about a friend of hers who recently lost her husband. She looked to Druck and Rappaport for advice on how the mother should help her 14-year-old son, a Torrey Pines student, get through the grieving process of losing his father.
Yamamoto said the child has turned very quiet and inward since the death.
Druck suggested the mother facilitate activities where the child interacts with other teenagers.
“It really helps to have people around,” he said. “Don’t let the child isolate.” Rather than forcing the child to bare his feelings, Druck told Yamamoto, “Having other people there to be with him will give him people to talk to and open up to.”
Asked by another audience member if grief ever “goes away,” Druck said it does not, but people learn to manage it.
“Grief never goes away,” he said. “It forever changes your life; it’s part of your life story. You can get past being a prisoner of fear and still not be over it. That’s what it is to be human.”
For more information on the Jenna Druck Foundation, visit www.jennadruck.org.
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