Teen voices: How are our adolescents dealing with loss?

This feature was originally published by The Detroit Writing Room and Coaching Detroit Forward's 2021 Journalism Camp.

I was 16 when my life flashed before my eyes. Reality struck. I was never the same. I was broken, I was hurt, I was lost. My life was in shambles. I had never felt my body so numb in my life.

The first man to love me unconditionally was now gone. My father, Orlando Sherman, 59 years old, shockingly passed, gaining his angel wings on Feb. 18, 2021. He was a wonderful mechanic who loved to dance and was an all-around great person. Losing my father led me to endure some of the worst pain. But my story is hardly unique, as a lot of children deal with this type of tragedy.

Kennadi’s Story

Kennadi Horton, a 17-year-old rising senior at Detroit Collegiate Preparatory High School at Northwestern, lost her father in February. She shared the effects that a loved one’s death has on children and how it affected her day-to-day life.

“It impacted my social life drastically,” Horton says. “I became very distant from my friends and family.”

In addition to creating isolation, death can also cause extreme changes in mood. “I could be so happy one day and completely sad the next,” she says. “Due to me losing my dad I had begun to shut down mentally and physically.”

Mood swings are common in children, especially teens. According to research by the Child Mind Institute, 3 to 5% of children are diagnosed with mood disorders, and by mid-adolescence, girls are twice as likely as boys to be diagnosed with a mood disorder. A lack of understanding about death may only make children who lose loved ones more vulnerable to mood swings, as well as depression and anxiety.

Death is a hard thing for children to understand, particularly under the age of 10.
“I don’t think a child understands the passing of someone if their parents have not talked to them about death or losing someone permanently,” Horton says. “I feel they’ll understand more about death and losing someone when they’re older.”

Some people feel that the relationship the child had with their lost loved one matters a great deal. In reality, it may not. Death hurts whether a strong bond exists or not.
“If you had a strong bond with that person, it wouldn’t just fade away,” Horton says. “You would always want to hold onto the bond and the feelings that the person had given you.”

Unfortunately, so many children have to deal with the loss of a loved one, more specifically the loss of a parent. One out of every 20 children under age 15 will lose one or both parents, according to a 2008 article in the Journal of Hospice & Palliative Nursing.

No matter who it is, the death of a loved one is always difficult to deal with –– particularly while still in adolescence. Most children and teens never think of the day they may have to say goodbye to a parent or a sibling or an aunt or uncle.

A 2021 article in The Lancet indicates that as many as 1.5 million children have lost a parent, guardian or another family member during the first 14 months of the COVID-19 pandemic. That is a huge number of children who have to deal with the ongoing hardships of grief and sadness which could haunt them forever. This can cause children to fall into depression, experience social anxiety, and too often lose hope for the future.

Dani’s Story

While Kennadi Horton’s loss is still very fresh, Dani Hunter of Detroit, unfortunately, lost her father nine years ago at the age of 16. Now 25 years old, she recalls how she experienced her loss alongside her brother.

“Overall, I think it affects both boys and girls,” Hunter says. “It can affect anyone in different ways, but I don’t think it differs more or less.”

Like me and other children and teens, we have to face the loss of a parent. And we will, in many cases, live in single-parent homes for many years to come.

Coping with Grief

Therapists and doctors can be the best people to talk to when discussing death, especially for children. According to Psychiatric Times, 40% of grieving family members meet the criteria for major depression one month after their loss, and 24% still remain depressed after two months.

Aisha Cunningham, a 31-year-old therapist who practices in Metro Detroit, explains the way she feels death can take over children and teens for days, weeks, months, and even a lifetime.

“The death could’ve been traumatic and sudden, or expected because of really old age or illness,” she says. “This could affect a person’s decision-making, relationships, professionalism, and habits.”

My Story

My own journey of grief has led me to write about it and study it. One of the ways I have learned to cope is by writing poetry. I was alone in my room one night recently, grappling with how to end this story. I decided to write this poem:

Five months later, I’m still here.
Trying to make my father proud.
Trying to make something out of myself.
I’ll be OK one day.
I just wish you were here to see it.
It’s hard without you.
I find myself calling your name and still looking around.
I hope one day I’m found.
You were the best father I could ever ask for.
Losing you hit me to the core.
I’ll always be
Out of body, out of mind.

Grief Resources

If you or anyone you know has a child dealing with the death of a loved one or family member please, check out these websites:

National Alliance for Children’s Grief

Association for Death Education and Counseling
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