Tanya Chernov, author of the memoir, A Real Emotional Girl, was 16 when her father was diagnosed with colon cancer. Here she gives some advice to teens facing the loss of a parent.
1. CUT YOURSELF SOME SLACK
When my dad got really sick, and when he died, I did and said a lot of stupid things. Pretty much everyone does at times like that because in the midst of all that pain and fear, it’s hard to be the best possible version of yourself.
I spent a long time beating myself up for not being able to grow up fast enough, or good enough in time for my father to see. I did get pretty self-destructive there for a while, and looking back on it all now, I wish I could have cut myself some slack. It wasn’t my fault that my dad was sick and it wasn’t my fault that he died when I was still trying to figure out what kind of person I wanted to become. I know these things now, and I know that being frustrated and disappointed in myself simply for having to grow up never did an ounce of good.
I wish someone would’ve told me to go a bit easier on myself for not having it all figured out, because the truth is that there is no guidebook, no set standard on how to go through the experience of losing someone you love. Every situation brings its own set of challenges and emotions.
2. BE LOVING TO YOUR PARENT
During the time that I was bucking against the reality of how little time I had left with my father, my uncle called me and basically told me to snap out of my bad attitude. He lovingly, but firmly, reminded me that time was running out and that I needed to make the most of what time I had left. He told me to just be as loving as I could be, and that’s what I did.
3. FIND WAYS TO BRING JOY BACK INTO YOUR LIFE
Go easy on yourself; be kind to yourself. You’ve been through a lot, and it’s important to give yourself the space and permission to grieve in whatever way makes you feel better and doesn’t cause further harm. My advice is to love yourself again, to find ways to bring laughter and joy back into your life. Read the books and watch the movies that make you feel better about the world, and share your thoughts and emotions with people you trust. Let them help you, let them take care of you. Remember that your parent loved you to the moon and back, and try to honor their memory by carrying on the things they loved. There’s a whole lot of goodness out there in the world, so don’t hesitate. Don’t ever, ever feel guilty about going out to get some of that goodness for yourself.
4. YOU WILL GROW AND CHANGE
The very hardest thing is having to finish growing up without your parent. At every stage of life that I’ve reached since I lost my father, I can’t help but ask myself how things would be different if he were still here. My dad and I were really close, and we loved all the same things, so most days I just plain miss him.
After Dad died, a lot of people told me that time would heal the terrible wound of grief, and I have found that to be a lie. Time does not lessen the loss, in fact sometimes it makes that loss feel even more palpable. Instead, I wish someone would have told me that just as all that pain and sadness comes into your life with grief, so does a new, stronger sense of oneself; the way I walk through my life now, having endured this loss, is infinitely more compassionate, appreciative, and adventurous than the way I lived before this experience. Dealing with death is incredibly difficult, yes, but it also makes the act of living seem tremendously more fulfilling. Life does not carry on as it did before, but it sure does carry on.
5. BE OPEN TO EVOLVING FRIENDSHIPS
It’s really hard to feel part of the group after losing a parent or loved one. Though I was in college when I had to re-enter the environment of my peers after Dad died, and was perhaps a bit more independent than most kids at that age, I still found it incredibly alienating and disappointing to see how inadequate that old dynamic of fun and partying and carefree days had suddenly become. I had seen and experienced things that most other kids wouldn’t have to deal with for decades, and I felt alone in that. Just having to find an answer for why I just had one parent, when the phrase “Mom and Dad” seemed so ubiquitous, was enough to send me home crying. Sometimes it’s the big things that are tough, and sometimes the little things hurt just as much.
There’s a saying that grief changes the address book, and no matter how old you are when you experience loss, friendships change. I imagine that for any teenager, the times you would otherwise spend with friends hanging out becomes a little less satisfying. Don’t be afraid to let your relationships change and evolve—if someone isn’t there for you in a supportive, helpful way, consider reevaluating that relationship a bit and take comfort in the company of others who “speak the same language.” Finding that sense of belonging is really important to any teenager, and even more important to teenagers who are grieving a significant loss.
6. WRITE AS A WAY OF HEALING AND EXPRESSION
I started writing this memoir when I was 21, and it was actually my father’s idea in the first place. I was worried about being able to graduate on time after having taken some time off to take care of my father, and he suggested that I try to get credit for writing an article or essay about our experiences. Though it was—and still is—painful to face all those dark emotions in order to write about them, I feel significantly more connected to my grief and to my father because of it all. I do recommend writing as a way to heal emotional wounds, however way in which that writing takes shape. For me, getting thoughts out of my head and onto the page releases me from some of the anguish and sorrow those thoughts make me feel. Though my aim has always been to help people going through similar experiences, I can’t imagine how lost I’d be without this book. I wanted to write the book that I needed and didn’t have before and after losing my father. It is not a memoir of my life, but rather a story about a specific time in my life—the grieving time.
Excerpts are from an interview on ‘What’s That Thing?’, a blog about Leukemia.