*This blog post was first published February 26th, 2009 when I worked for The Prevention Researcher. This September they will be publishing their final issue. I’ve decided that I need to add some of these posts here, edit and use some of my old photography and keep the content online.
A few weeks ago, I was called home because our youngest dog, Ming, had a seizure. Having never witnessed a dog having seizures before, we were quite alarmed and immediately called the vet to get information about what to do. The next week, when Ming and I saw the vet for a follow-up appointment, I was given literature about seizures in dogs. Going through this process with Ming, I was taken back to my teen years when my dog, Bella, had hip dysplasia. I decided at 17 years of age that it was time to put her to down. Thinking about how Bella’s death impacted me and this new knowledge about Ming’s illness, I started wondering about the future. When I have kids, how much information would I give them about a dog’s illness? Knowledge is power, but illness also creates heightened anxiety. Reflecting on the task of processing and handling my own anxiety as a teenager dealing with Bella’s death, I wondered as a parent, how much of what I’m going through now would I share with a teenaged child?
I decided then to look to the research and to see what resources were out there that could in assist in answering this question. I found several books written on coping with pet loss but it was much more difficult to find something specifically for teens. The Dougy Center ‘s guidebook, Helping Teens Cope with Death, was the most helpful piece of literature I could find on grieving teens. It touches on several aspects of grieving. The piece that stuck out to me the most was The Bill of Rights of Grieving Teens.
The Bill of Rights of Grieving Teens
By Teens at The Dougy Center
A grieving teen has the right….
…to know the truth about the death, the deceased, and the circumstances.
…to have questions answered honestly.
…to be heard with dignity and respect.
…to be silent and not tell you her/his grief emotions and thoughts.
…to not agree with your perceptions and conclusions.
…to see the person who died and the place of the death.
…to grieve any way she/he wants without hurting self or others.
…to feel all the feelings and to think all the thoughts of his/her own unique grief.
…to not have to follow the “Stages of Grief” as outlined in a high school health book.
…to grieve in one’s own unique, individual way without censorship.
…to be angry at death, at the person who died, at God, at self, and at others.
…to have his/her own theological and philosophical beliefs about life and death.
…to be involved in the decisions about the rituals related to the death.
…to not be taken advantage of in this vulnerable mourning condition and circumstances.
…to have guilt about how he/she could have intervened to stop the death.
This Bill of Rights was developed by participating teens at The Dougy Center and does not represent “official” policies of the Center.
These rights emphasize each teen’s need to grieve in their own way. During a stage when teens are trying to define their own independence, I can see how important this right is. Looking back at the question about how I might handle this situation in the future with my own child, I also found helpful information from Dr. JoAnn Jarolmen. Dr. Jarolmen has published a book called, When a Family Pet Dies: A Parent’s Guide to Helping Their Children with Loss. One of Dr. Jarolmen’s insights is that during adolescence teens are able to understand the enormity of an event that has to do with loss. She finds that many parents make the mistake of thinking that teens are old enough to handle the situation on their own.
One thing I found was missing in this literature review was information acknowledging the large age span adolescence covers. The Dougy Center’s guidebook identifies that it can be used with youth 11 to 21 years of age. Information and support needs to be developmentally appropriate and how we approach grief and death with an 11 year old would be different than that of a 17 year old.
As a teenager, Bella’s death had a huge impact on me. I remember staying home from school (which I rarely did), and I was most touched by a friend of mine who came to check on me. I wore Bella’s ID tag to school for most of the rest of the year; this made me feel close to her. If I hadn’t known about her condition of hip dysplasia, I’m afraid her death could have blindsided me, and I believe that kind of loss would have been much different.
Dr. Jarolmen wrote, “During this stage, it is hard to predict the response of the teen. Denial or acting out may be the expression of grief. Offer to have the young person talk to you and share your feelings and emotional response openly. They eventually will mourn the loss but in their own time and way….”