Dawn Burdick and the rest of the staff at St. Mary Parish in Canandaigua immediately went into crisis mode on May 5, when they heard that a Canandaigua Academy senior had taken his life at the school. They arranged an evening prayer service at the church to allow students and their parents to gather for reflection, discussion and prayer, said Burdick, the parish’s youth minister.
Then Burdick learned the deceased student was 17-year-old Thomas Kane, who had been an active member of the parish youth group.
"It was obviously unbelievable. It just shook us," she recalled.
Burdick found herself in the unenviable position of trying to help grieving youth-group members who’d been close to Tom, all the while dealing with her own shock and sorrow. As a youth minister certified through St. Bernard’s School of Theology and Ministry in Pittsford, she had taken courses and workshops designed to prepare youth ministers for helping teens deal with grief and tragedy. Even armed with her training, Burdick said she still didn’t feel prepared on May 5.
"All of that (work) leads up to it, but when it comes down to it, I don’t think that you could ever be prepared for this specific instance," she said.
Nonetheless, Burdick did her best to walk with and support the teens on their journey of grieving.
The May 5 prayer service was the first step on that journey, she said.
"When it turned out it was Tom we didn’t change our plans. We just sort of added to them," Burdick said.
Burdick expected about 40 kids and 20 adults to come to the service, but 700 people crowded into St. Mary Church that night. The attendance spoke volumes about people’s need to gather together and not be alone when tragedy strikes, Burdick said.
"(The crowd) was shocking at first, but then I kind of started thinking about how all these people had an impact on his life, and he obviously had an impact on their lives," said Canandaigua Academy senior Dan O’Brien, one of Tom’s close friends.
"The whole church was filled with students and some parents. Seeing these students that would never otherwise set foot inside a church, coming together for meditation, it was just encouraging," added classmate Megan Hanlon.
The adults had a discussion in one room, while the teens formed a prayer circle in another room, where each teen had the opportunity to say a one-word prayer, thought or feeling.
"Everyone got a chance to say something. Just being able to verbalize what you’re feeling inside is so healing, and I think the way we did it is good because nobody had to give a speech or anything," Burdick said.
Indeed, one of the best things parents and adults can do for grieving teens is to let them talk about what they’re feeling, said marriage and family therapist Dr. Dennis Boike, a parishioner of Church of the Transfiguration in Pittsford. Parents often think they need to give advice in order to be helpful, but in this case listening is more helpful than problem-solving, he said.
"They’ve got to quit solving, because there’s no way in the world that you’re going to solve the loss of someone. It’s a hole that will not be filled," Boike remarked.
Instead, parents should focus on their children’s emotions and talk about what the children are feeling, he said.
It was helpful for the teens to have the chance to talk to each other at the prayer service, Dan said. The service was the first time many of the teens had seen each other since the scary moments when their school was evacuated earlier in the day on May 5, and now they finally knew what had happened and could comfort each other and commiserate.
The impromptu gatherings Burdick held at the parish house in the following days also were helpful, as teens gathered to talk, share stories about Tom and just be together, Hanlon said.
"It was nice just having that safe place to go, and being around friends who were going through the same things," she said.
"I think it’s good to express yourself, express your feelings. We all have the same emotions and feelings about what happened. It’s better to let it out than keep it bottled up," he said.
Boike said teens often prefer talking with their peers rather than with adults in such situations because, as Dan noted, their peers understand the context in which the situations occurred. They need time to be with other teens to cry, talk or even laugh, he said, especially as they share cherished memories of a friend.
On the other hand, parental support is still crucial for a grieving teen, Boike said. Some teens may want to be hugged while others might want some more space, but whether they realize it or not, all teens need their parents to be close at hand.
"I don’t want them to be the helicopter parent hovering overhead. I want them to be within striking distance, checking in on them," Boike said. "Somebody being close to them gives them a feeling that they are not in as desperate a situation as they might feel."
Surrounding yourself with people, whether they’re family or friends, is important, Dan agreed.
"You don’t want to be alone, especially when you find out news like that," he said.
Now that school is out for the summer, Tom’s friends and classmates have fewer people checking in on them, Burdick said.
"We’ve been trying to reformat our summer programming so that we have more opportunities to gather. There are things that are structured and planned, but then there are other things where you just meet the kids where they are, on the move," she said.
Burdick and the parish staff and volunteers support the teens as much as possible, but also try to know when to back off, she said, because everyone grieves differently and needs a different level of support. Studies have shown, for example, that girls grieve better when they cry, but boys do not, Boike said.
Telling teens that eventually they’ll be fine is not necessarily helpful, he added.
"They’re not ready for that. It’s not something they can absorb," he said.
Hanlon said she felt that way when people at school suggested using Tom’s death as an opportunity to reach out to those with suicidal thoughts.
"I said, ‘I can’t use this,’ because I can’t focus on anything other than what I’m feeling. There was no way I could handle it or deal with it," she said.
Telling teens that a friend’s death is part of God’s plan also is not helpful when the teens are still reeling from shock and grief, Burdick said.
"We know that God has a plan for all of this and nothing is outside of God’s control … but that doesn’t help teens. In the teen mind, or even in the adult mind, you think, ‘Why would this be God’s plan?’ You have to lead them to that. You have to listen and journey with them," she said.
Adults helping teens on this journey also need to be mindful of their own mental and spiritual health and take care of their own needs, she added.
"Don’t get caught up in just taking care of the kids. You have to remember to take care of yourself or you’re no good to anybody else," Burdick remarked.
The most important thing for adults to remember, she said, is always to value, love and accept the teens around them.
"The more you are connected ahead of time, (then) when a tragedy strikes the better connected you are and that net is there to catch you," she said.
Center explains teen grieving
The Dougy Center for Grieving Children and Families in Portland, Ore., was founded in 1982 and serves 380 children and 250 adult family members each month through peer and adult support groups. According to the center, to help grieving teens, adults first must understand the six basic principles of teen grief:
1. Grieving is the teen’s natural reaction to a death. It’s normal and healthy, yet may overwhelm or frighten some teens because their emotions, thoughts or feelings may be difficult to control or understand.
2. Each teen’s grieving experience is unique. Some teens may express grief through sadness and crying, while others may express it with humor and laughter.
3. There are no right and wrong ways to grieve. However, there are helpful, constructive choices and behaviors as well as unhelpful, destructive choices and behaviors associated with this process.
4. Every death is unique and is experienced differently. The way a teen grieves will depend on his or her personality and relationship with the deceased person.
5. The grieving process is influenced by many issues. These include the circumstances surrounding the death, the support systems available to the teen and the teen’s previous experiences with death.
6. Grief is ongoing. It never ends, although its character and intensity will change.
For more information and resources, visit the Dougy Center’s Web site at www.dougy.org.