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How to Help a Teenager Handle the Death of an Idol – The New York Times

In June, the YouTube star Etika was found dead in the East River, a suicide. My 15-year-old son was a fan, and I watched him process the loss without saying much. A few weeks later, the Disney Channel actor Cameron Boyce died at age 20. “People can just die so young?” my son asked. I nodded.

I admit, I was really terrible at this part of parenting. The adults in my life when I was a teenager had always framed death around religion, saying that people had “gone to a better place,” something that never brought me a sense of peace. I didn’t want to make those same mistakes.

Then on Dec. 8 the rap artist Juice WRLD died after a seizure at a Chicago airport. Juice WRLD was my son’s favorite rap artist. His music was a regular part of my son’s day, playing in his headphones on the way to school. The shock hit my son hard, and this time I reached out to experts for advice on how to support him.

“Generally, when it comes to grief, particularly with teens, the impulse for the support person is to try to make them feel better,” said Jana DeCristofaro, community response program coordinator of the Dougy Center, a national center for grieving children and families. “But by jumping in” and attempting to assuage the grief, “we are really communicating that their grief makes us uncomfortable.”

The Dougy Center, in Portland, Ore., provides peer support programs for children, teenagers and their families grieving a death. Its philosophy is that teens respond better when parents and other adults choose to be companions in the grieving process rather than attempting to direct it. The parental instinct to try to make everything O.K. can actually backfire.

“Teens are going to be really sensitive to the fact that a parent is uncomfortable,” Ms. DeCristofaro said. “Then, they’re just going to say ‘I’m fine.’” Instead, talk through these feelings in a way that gives your teen the reins.

For this generation of teenagers, the deaths of their icons are bigger than adults might realize.

“When a star dies who’s around the same age, it can bring up a lot of thoughts about mortality,” Ms. DeCristofaro said. Reminders of these deaths are all over social media, and teens are inundated daily with news and commentary on what happened and why. Ms. DeCristofaro said this might trigger teenagers’ questions about the purpose of their own lives.

Parents also have to keep in mind that fan relationships are different now. The deaths of previous pop idols, like Michael Jackson in 2009 and Prince in 2016, devastated fans all over the world. Many worshiped them and felt emotionally connected to them through their music. But now, with platforms like Snapchat, teens are immersed in the world of their celebrities like never before.

Ms. DeCristofaro said that one of the factors that influences a person’s grieving process is how much the person who died was a part of the day-to-day life of the person grieving. Teens watch their favorite musicians’ Instagram stories, follow their thoughts and musings on Twitter, and see or hear from their favorite celebrities on one social platform or another. This adds to the level of connection teens feel they have with celebrities.

What parents can do differently, she said, is acknowledge how the daily routine of teens whose favorite celebrity just died will change. Treating these deaths like far-removed tragedies is dismissive.

“They feel like they lost a friend,” said Ebony White, director of the addictions counseling program and assistant clinical professor of the counseling and family therapy department at Drexel University. “Sometimes parents and teachers lose teens because we don’t connect with how personal it was for them.”

Dr. White recommends that parents start with a simple question: “What do you need from me?” Other well-intentioned questions, such as “Why are you upset?” or “What’s wrong?” can come across as dismissive to grieving teens. Acknowledging the pain they are experiencing without attempting to fix the feelings may help leave the door open for teens to lean on their parents through the process.

To continue the conversation, Ms. DeCristofaro advises that parents be what she calls curious learners. “Show some interest and curiosity in the celebrity,” she said. “‘Could we listen to something together? What do you like about their music?’ Just so you can learn a little about what you child is connecting with.” Such questions help teens put the focus back on the lives of the icons they’ve lost instead of their deaths.

Sometimes news reports tie a celebrity’s death to an accidental drug overdose, as with Mac Miller, Lil Peep and most recently Juice WRLD. Dr. White said parents should avoid shifting into lecture mode, because it may seem to diminish the child’s grief. “You don’t have to explicitly say, ‘I hear he overdosed on drugs,” she said. “Ask, ‘Do you know what happened, and do you want to talk about it?’”

Ms. DeCristofaro added that parents can also create space for teens to take the lead in talking about drugs by asking what conversations are coming up among their friends on the topic. That space, however, needs to be free of advice or judgment, she said.

Dr. Indra Cidambi, a psychiatrist who specializes in addictions and medical director of the Center for Network Therapy, an outpatient detoxification program in New Jersey, urged parents to pay close attention to the celebrities their teens idolize.

“In pop culture, drugs can be portrayed as cool or even safe,” she said. “Adolescents who strongly identify with or idolize celebrities are influenced by many aspects of a celebrity’s life and may come to normalize behavior they otherwise wouldn’t.” Listen to the music your teens listen to and take in the media they take in, she says, so that there’s a continual conversation happening instead of waiting until after a tragedy involving drugs occurs.

Do teens need their parents to relate to their grief? Not necessarily. “There’s a way to normalize and validate grief without centering on yourself,” Ms. DeCristofaro said. “If your teen has a lot to say, there’s no reason to jump into your own story.”

If you, or someone you know, is having thoughts of suicide, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255 (TALK) or text CONNECT to the Crisis Text Line at 741741.


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