Ask the expert: Our daughter is struggling since the death of a classmate
She is struggling to get a proper night’s sleep and is very anxious before going to bed
For teenagers, bereavement can be particularly difficult to come to terms with. Photograph: iStockphoto
Q Six months ago my daughter, who has just turned 16, had to cope with the death of a girl in her class who died after a short battle with a serious illness. Our daughter was not particularly close to the girl but, as you can imagine, she was still very upset as were the whole class. My wife and I have been supporting our daughter since. We have spoken to her many times and tried to help her cope and she seemed to be managing better. However, in the past few months I’ve noticed she often gets very anxious before going to bed and is struggling to get a proper night’s sleep. How can we help her?
A As a young person, the untimely death of a classmate or friend can be very difficult to deal with. No one expects a young person to die, so it can be a great shock that can shake a teenager’s world. Just as they are going through their adolescence and working out the big questions about relationships and life’s meaning, they are faced with a tragic loss.
Aside from the grief they might experience, frequently this can cause them to feel anxious or worried that other people might die or that something bad could happen to them. Teenagers need special support from their parents to get through this time. It is great that you and your wife have been there for her throughout this time, being available to listen to her when she needs to talk.
Coping with loss and grief
Young people cope very differently with loss and grief. Some are very expressive about how they feel and need to talk frequently about their feelings. Some might be more contained in their emotions, talking only at certain times about how they feel.
Also, people may need different support at different times during the grief process. For example, at the beginning someone might need lots of space to express their feelings but some months later they might need permission and support to move on and get on with everyday life.
In the aftermath of a tragic loss, some young people may develop symptoms such as depression or anxiety as seems to be the case for your daughter. This anxiety can start immediately after the loss or some time later when the initial grief and upset has passed.
Dealing with her anxiety
The first thing you can do to help your daughter is to acknowledge that the worries and anxiety she might be experiencing are normal and understandable.
When feeling anxious, the worst thing a person can do is become annoyed or frustrated for feeling this way as this makes them more agitated and increases the intensity of the anxiety they are feeling. A little bit of self compassion and acceptance goes a long way.
Encourage your daughter to talk about her worries if you notice her becoming anxious before bed. Try to get her to open up about the specific thoughts or ruminations going on in her mind. They could be specific worries related to the death of her classmate, such as worry that other people close to her might get sick, or more general worries about everyday life and school. When you listen, be very accepting and understanding of whatever she is feeling – “after what you have being through, it is very normal that you might feel this way”. Helping her express her worries should give her a great deal of relief.
Help her move on from her worries
It is also important to help your daughter move on from her worries and to not let them dominate, especially when she is trying to sleep at night. Having a chat before bed can help, where your daughter talks about what is on her mind before letting these worries go and settling to sleep.
Alternatively, you could encourage her to have a diary, where she has the ritual of writing down things on her mind, before taking time to relax before sleep. Helping your daughter develop ways to relax before sleep is also crucial. These can be simple things like listening to music or reading or more formal relaxation techniques such as meditation or mindfulness. There are lots of downloadable relaxation clips on YouTube that you can use.
Getting support in the school
Reading your question, I wondered what supports the school might have provided when her classmate died. Providing support directly to the whole class within the school can be an important way of helping the young people cope together. Attending the funeral together or having a memorial service in the school facilitate the young people to share their shock and grief and thus help them cope as a group.
In addition, rituals of remembering at different times in the future are important such as an anniversary service or writing a card to the family. I think many of the children in the class might still be learning to cope six months on, just as your daughter is.
As a result, you might check in with the school and the parents’ association about how all the children are coping and what the support options are on offer. Some schools organise important events such as fundraising for the charity that deals with the illness that affected the girl or recalling her in a special service when they are back at school. These are all ways that help the young people constructively channel their grief and provides them with opportunities to share feelings and memories, all of which help them cope better.
Getting extra support
Seek extra support for your daughter if you feel she might benefit. The school might have a counselling service that it can recommend.
Barnardos also offers a specialist bereavement helpline that you could ring to explore options. Tel: 01-4732110 open from 10am-12pm Monday to Thursday.
Dr John Sharry is a social worker and psychotherapist and co-developer of the Parents Plus programmes. His new book, Bringing Up Happy, Confident Children: A practical guide to nurturing resilience, self-esteem and emotional well-being, is now available. See solutiontalk.ie for details.