Heretolisten.org is a resource for caring adults—the front-line staff in schools and community based programs—to help teens who are struggling with difficult emotions.
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How to Cope With Life’s Losses
Shameeka Michelle Dowling
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—Shameeka Dowling

NYC: How would you define loss?

Dr. Demy Kamboukos: Loss can be the death of a loved one, a close family member or a friend. There are also losses due to social circumstances—if parents divorce, there’s the loss of daily contact with a parent who moves out. Teens can also experience a loss of resources, such as a change in finances, and loss of friendships and close family relationships, either because of arguments or because someone moves away.

NYC: How do teenagers typically react to death?

Dr. Kamboukos: Teenagers have similar reactions to adults—sadness, depression, disbelief, potentially anger. Teenagers also start to really question their own mortality: “Who am I, what’s my purpose in life, what am I going to do to make a difference?” A death might change a teenager’s goals, their sense of obligation to others and their sense of self.

NYC: What is the best way for a teen to deal with the recent loss of a family member?

Dr. Kamboukos: The first thing teenagers should understand is that it’s normal to feel sad, but it’s also normal to feel angry or confused. It’s also normal to want to continue doing what you planned to do with your life, even though you’ve lost a loved one.

Sometimes what happens when someone dies is that no one talks about them and no one knows how to react. And then teenagers are not given the opportunity to share memories about the person they love and miss.

It’s important to talk about your feelings, to share your memories and thoughts about the person who died.

image by Terrence Taylor

It’s also important to maintain routines. Finding positive experiences and participating in after-school activities helps with recovery. It’s OK to do that, even though you’re sad, even though you’re missing someone you love dearly. Also, teenagers who give back to their community and who volunteer tend to do well because it gives them a sense of purpose, serves as a distraction, and makes them feel good helping others in need.

NYC: What are some ways a teenager can handle the loss of a certain environment, such as the house they grew up in or the country they come from?

Dr. Kamboukos: Loss related to social or environmental factors may not have the same effects as the loss of a loved family member. However, that’s not to minimize how important the effect of such loss may be. For example, if you can’t go back to your country or if you have to move away from the house you grew up in, you may lose a sense of who you are, your social support and your daily routines.
Teenagers should seek people around them who they can talk to about their feelings, build strong new relationships, and find ways to build on positives in their new environment. I would recommend joining an after-school group or team and finding ways to give back to the community.

NYC: Where can teenagers find programs or help to deal with their losses?

Dr. Kamboukos: Our website, AboutOurKids.org, has a lot of resources for families and teenagers. If you feel down or sad most of the time, are not able to concentrate, don’t want to do things you used to think were fun, or are unable to continue with daily activities, these are some indications you may need some help.

I would say first, if you can, speak to an adult you trust, such as a parent, teacher, guidance counselor or doctor. They can help you look into resources in your community. It may be helpful to speak with a professional about your feelings.

NYC: How can teens help friends dealing with loss?

Dr. Kamboukos: It’s really hard for teenagers when their friends are going through loss. Sometimes the inclination is to pretend it didn’t happen, or to try to fix it and make it all go away. It’s normal to have those feelings. But it’s important to be a good listener and a support to your friend.

Tell them, “I’m here for you; whenever you want to talk, I’m ready to listen.” Teens also need to understand that sometimes someone’s not ready to talk and share their feelings, and that’s OK. Teens can also help their friends by getting them involved in everyday activities and events.

For help dealing with loss, contact The Door, which offers free counseling to teens: 1-800-662-1220, www.door.org. For general mental health resources, visit www.AboutOurKids.org.

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(NYC-2008-04-05)

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