The Secret World of Grief

Sometimes, friends don’t realize that there’s nothing wrong with, say, a person who doesn’t cry after a death the way people do in movies.

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Losing a loved one can be one of life’s most profound experiences—but also one of the least discussed. These courageous teens want to break the silence and share their stories of love and loss, and what they learned along the way.

Two summers ago, Genevieve Liu was a typical 13-year-old enjoying herself at a family party on Lake Michigan, near her home in Chicago. Then her world fell apart. Two 12-year-olds fell out of a kayak and Genevieve’s dad, a pediatric surgeon, jumped into the choppy water to try and rescue them before they drowned. Instead her father lost his own life.

“I found myself in a state of ‘no, this is not my life, it’s like a movie, it hasn’t happened,’” she said. “I didn’t think anybody could understand.”

And no wonder. You read sad books about loss or watch your favorite TV characters deal with death—but until you experience grief yourself, it’s hard to know what it really feels like.

For Genevieve, the first month felt like a blur. She remembers family friends bringing over meals for her mom and two siblings, but once the visits slowed down, she was left with what felt like a massive hole that seemed to have no bottom. She was stoic at the funeral, but the emptiness of not having her dad around hit her even harder once things were supposed to get easier. The pain felt physical, like she couldn’t catch her breath sometimes. She expected the tears, of course, especially as she wrote letters to her father—her biggest fear was that she’d forget details about him—but she didn’t know that grief could cause her emotions to bounce back and forth like a Ping-Pong ball, or that instead of tapering off, they’d suddenly appear out of nowhere when she least expected them.

“One minute I was numb, and the next minute I felt incredible anger, like it’s not fair,” she said. “Every time I saw a friend with her dad, I’d get so jealous. I was sad, but mostly I felt angry—at not having my dad around, at the awkward way people acted around me, because they didn’t know what to say. They thought I was either overreacting or not reacting enough.”

Many Ways to Grieve

Sometimes, friends don’t realize that there’s nothing wrong with, say, a person who doesn’t cry after a death the way people do in movies. According to Pete Shrock, who runs a bereavement camp called Comfort Zone Camp and the online community, each experience is unique. He says boys tend to shut down more than girls because of cultural ideas about “being tough.” He explains that some worry that they need to be “the man of the house” and not be vulnerable, but “it takes real courage to speak the truth and trust somebody with it—that’s what being tough really is.” Other teens will go into overachievement mode—become captain of the soccer team, get straight A’s, do everything at home—to avoid thinking about their loss. And some may appear to be having no reaction at all, which can seem weird to outsiders. “Being numb means you are reacting,” Shrock says. “You’re taking in the information and processing it in your own time.” Circumstances also influence the way you react: There’s a difference between knowing that somebody you care about is very sick and going to die, and being completely blindsided.

Sudden Tragedy

That happened to Greg Lupica, a 17-year-old high school senior in Southern California. When Greg was 8 years old, he was sitting on the sofa and watching a movie with his seemingly healthy 15-year-old sister Marisa, when she suddenly stopped breathing. He says it took years to let go of the couch that she died on. In many ways, her death still affects him—its suddenness has made him appreciate what he has and not take anything for granted. “The thing that surprised me the most is how the feelings don’t go away,” he says. “It definitely changes, but I used to think grief was something to get through, and then you’re through it.” Even now, he says, “I still get a jolt in my stomach when I hear Marisa’s favorite song on the radio.” Instead of avoiding talking about his sister, it helps him to acknowledge that he’s thinking about her, whether that means posting a picture of her on Facebook on her birthday, mentioning at dinner how he wishes she were there in her old seat, or telling people who ask how many siblings he has that he has three—two who are still living.

Dealing With Loss

Jessica Frankel, a family therapist in Los Angeles, says that while losing a parent or sibling seems like an obvious source of grief, sometimes the death of a teacher, classmate, grandparent, or dog—or even a divorce where you no longer see both parents every day—can feel like just as big of a loss and trigger intense grief reactions. You might, for instance, want to create a goodbye ceremony for the cat you’ve had since you were born, but your friends and parents think you’re being dramatic. Or maybe you weren’t super close with your grandpa, but it’s scary to see your dad in so much pain after his own dad has died. Frankel adds that whatever the source of the grief—a grandparent who died of old age, a friend who died while texting and driving, a beloved pet who ran away— adults may minimize the pain by saying things like, “Grandma lived a long life” or “We’ll get another dog” or “But Jenny was only in your math class—you barely knew her.” If that happens, Frankel suggests, you can say, “I just really want to tell you how I’m feeling. I don’t need you to do anything—just listen to me.” Then tell them what you think would help—making a scrapbook, or sharing videos.

“I don’t believe in closure,” Frankel says. “I believe in growth. You’ll feel challenged in some ways but be inspired in others.”

Genevieve, the teen whose dad drowned, was inspired to start a nonprofit website called SLAPD (Surviving Life After a Parent Dies) to allow teens to connect with others who find themselves in the same situation. And Greg, whose sister died, became a lifeguard and says that compared with his peers he feels more emotionally open, more resilient, and more able to go outside of his comfort zone. “I didn’t choose what happened,” he says, “but given that it did, I try to make positive choices every day, and I know that if my sister could see me now, she would be really proud.” 

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