Switching from one school to another is one of those universally dreaded teenage experiences. There will be more work, new teachers, different kinds of people, and a whole new set of distractions from our responsibilities. All transitions can be frightening, but making the jump from middle school to high school then to college can be some of the most difficult adjustments in teenage life. This is especially true for adolescents who have lost a parent.
When my mom died I was in seventh grade, and I had an amazing, close-knit community of support. Every staff member and student at my grade school had a unique understanding of who I was, as they had the experience of knowing my family before and after our loss. There was a definite and particular sense of safety and comfort there.
High school was different.
Suddenly, I was thrust into an environment where no one knew about my mom or my family. I had to retell the complicated story of my parent’s divorce and second marriages and mom’s death over and over. What made all of this more difficult was how far removed I was from the grieving process as we traditionally think of it. I observed the second anniversary of my mom’s death my freshman year, and no one knew how to respond when I told them. How do you explain to people you just met that of course the memory of your parent will always be you and, yes, of course you’re still sad about it, but you still just a teenager trying to navigate the first months of high school? Going from a small, close-knit community to a large and intimidating high school where no one knew a thing about me was challenging.
A good friend and mentor told me early on in my high school career that I needed to change my coping strategies to suit my new life style. I joined my high school’s Grief and Loss Support Group that met once a week. This gave me the chance to talk about how I was handling the transition into high school, and how my relationship with my mom and the grieving process had changed since. I started journaling more, and I joined a yoga and meditation club. The most important thing that I did, though, was talk to my friends. When something reminded me of mom, I said it. When I wanted to share a memory or funny story, I did. Making her a part of the conversation kept her memory alive during a time of constant distraction and told my friends that her death didn’t have to be a taboo subject.
Now, I have undergone that transition all over again. I’m a freshman in college, which means I’m experiencing an even more drastic transition period in my life; new state, new people, no family, no old friends, and none of the familiar comforts of home. The first few weeks I really struggled with remembering to take care of myself internally, not just with schoolwork and a completely different kind of social life. I’m still employing the many of the same coping strategies that I did in high school, like journaling and talking about my mom. Still, it hasn’t been easy. Time may begin to heal many wounds, but it’s been six years and I’m still trying to navigate these transitions.
Switching schools, making new friends, adjusting to more difficult classes: it can be frightening and intimidating. Learning how to grieve in a new environment is just as difficult as taking that first high school math class. It involves patience, practice, and finding out what works for you. I found that talking about my mom in a casual setting was best for me, but that may not be the case for everyone. As we continue past the first year, it’s vital to remind ourselves that self-care is just as important as it was at first. Maintaining healthy relationships during transition periods, especially those having to do with school, is an essential part of these times. With everything in flux, little is as important as remembering to grieve in a healthy, constructive way. After all, high school and college is difficult enough as it is!