Dear Dr. Brilliant Cliché,
My 15 year old niece who now lives with me lost her mother one year ago. As my sister was a single mom and had no other children they were very close. Prior to her mom’s death my niece was an honor student. Although a bit head strong she had no behavioral issues and was a pleasure to be with. Now she is failing all her classes. She obviously is depressed and finds everything “Just no point” especially school. “Why do I need that crap?” Therapy, medications, church have all made no difference. What am I supposed to do? What can I say?
At a Loss
In our culture, when we lose a loved one all we have left of them is our grief and suffering. Those who try to comfort us can seem as if they are trying to take our grief away as well. Many people try to keep their lost loved ones fresh in their mind like a photo they carry around. But memory fades regardless. The more others try to help us let go of our grief, the more we can try to hold on: “I will not let go. I will not forget.”
There are other ways to look at death. The western cultural idea of souls leaving to going to heaven can be viewed as another loss, requiring letting go of the person. I prefer the eastern view of death. All of your ancestors live a line that culminates in you here now. They are all within you and part of who you are. For your niece, her mom is part of this chain and lives on through it. All of your niece’s ancestors want her to go on and be successful and carry the torch on to her own children. She honors them all through her behaviors. If she improves herself through school she improves all of them. The opportunities she creates for herself and her future children are a gift she gives to both her past and her future.
Her mom doesn’t fade, isn’t lost, but continues to evolve in a dynamic with her. Your niece’s mom did everything she could to help secure her the best opportunities she could because she loved her. Those gifts mom gave her aren’t gone; they are waiting to grow.
It is okay to grieve, feel mad, sad, guilt, whatever. There are no wrong feelings but there are wrong behaviors. It is not okay to quit life. One has to choose to be alive even if it means change.
No one at 15 years old should have to get slapped in the head with reality like this but it is part of life. In no way should her grief be covered up through the numbness of medication, drugs or social expectations. At the same time she needs to continue to deal with the usual responsibilities of a 15 year old. Volunteerism helps a lot with grief. It can recycle negative energy into positive energy.
Dr. Brilliant Cliché
Granny says: I’m not sure if it is our egos that drive us to feel we should “help” people who are grieving, but it is a pointless effort. Grief is a long process that takes its own sweet time.
I have dealt with the loss of both my parents, a husband, numerous friends, and much-loved pets. Nothing that anyone said to try to comfort me did much but make me want to slap them. I know that your intentions are good, but anyone who tries to comfort those who grieve usually makes the error of assuming they understand how that person feels, and that comfort is what is needed. This just is not always the case. I know that when someone tries to comfort me, I often feel like I am being smothered or restrained by their needs. It is not about me- it is about the ideas in their own head, the things that they are imagining they would feel in my circumstance.
If you want to help your niece, be normal with her. Treat her like a normal girl. Expect her to deal, don’t treat her like she’s made of glass and will break. If she gets mad at you, that might be the best thing. I have seen people wallow in depression for months, unable to lift themselves out of it while their friends comfort them…and then one day, something will happen that sets them off and they will explode, scream at everyone, cry, just lose it. After that, they seem to be able to go on.
Life is tough. What happened to your niece is very sad. She is in mourning. She really needs everyone else around her to continue participating in life as usual. It can be more comforting than you know.