One woman said that trying to comfort a teenager by simply reducing their reaction to “we’ll get through this” might make the child think the parent is trivializing the deaths of two Lake Forest High School teens.
“It involves really understanding and saying, ‘How do you feel about this?’ ” agreed Dr. John Jochem, a clinical psychologist.
Lake Forest parents probably have had some level of conversation with their sons and daughters over the recent deaths of two 15-year-olds, Farid Hussain and Will Laskero-Tesocki, within a 60-day period since the school year reconvened Jan. 3.
Hussain, a sophomore, walked into the path of a Metra train on the way to school Jan. 9, which was ruled a suicide by the Lake County Coroner’s Office. Laskero-Teskoski’s fate was the same, though the freshman's Feb. 28 death is still under investigation by the coroner's office.
Parents recently had an opportunity March 12 when Lake Forest High School hosted “An Evening for Parents: Promoting Emotional Wellness in Adolescents-Awareness and Support” where Jochem addressed the approximately 150 people in attendance.
- See related story: Shedding Light on Adolescent Depression, Suicide and Grieving Process
Jochem fielded questions from the audience about how they could help their children process their grief over the recent deaths, and how adults can become more involved as gatekeepers for troubled adolescents in the community.
Those Who Talk; Those Who Don't
A mother wanted to know how parents can address the recent tragedies with their children and how to help them process their grief given their different personality types, such as those who will talk about how they feel and those who won’t.
Jochem said to expect that they will be affected and that there needs to be ongoing discussion. Parents need to be open to what that means because it will evolve over time. He suggested that parents pay attention to the array of themes that will arise in different ways over time, and that they be aware of the stages of grief their children experience, which also can change from time to time.
Another mother said she tried to talk with her son about the death of his classmate, but to no avail. She wondered if she should bring it up again later or just let it go. Jochem suggested that if she gets “push back” to be open to other opportunities to broach the subject again in the future by saying, “Do you ever think about that?"
He advised parents to tell their kids not to rush to judgment about what these tragedies mean in their own lives. The meaning will evolve over time, he said, adding that they should be patient with the process.
Helping Children Understand Tragedies
While much of the evening’s talk centered on how to help adolescents process grief, there was also concern about how adults can work with younger children to help them understand tragedies.
“It’s different than talking to teenagers,” said Jochem. “They are capable of thinking abstract thoughts, there are all kinds of meanings, and they’ll tell you the meanings. They can conceptualize the shortened life or that it could have been them and simplistic explanations of why something happened. It’s different with a first-grader.”
He suggested people follow his lead from his personal experiences with helping younger children process death and tragedies.
“I would listen to their anxiety, but I would do my major role to try and calm them; saying, ‘It’s OK, the grownups are here. We got it under control. Yes, these are upsetting things. Understandably, you’re upset. You’re OK,’ ” said Jochem.
“Give them a more directive, prescriptive approach as opposed to inviting them to talk to me, tell me what your feelings are with the goal more alleviating anxiety," he added. "Make sure you’re not imposing your own meanings on them. They’re not capable of thinking of the broader abstract of implications.”
Keeping Channels Open Between Parents
Terri Yamauchi took a corporate leave from Xerox Corp. to work for one year as a paid volunteer with LEAD. Referring to the parents’ role as “gatekeepers” in the community, she reflected on how parents of younger children have ample opportunities to network with other parents and share concerns about risk factors they may have observed in someone else’s child.
However, she said her experience has been that as children move into adolescent years, the opportunities to have discussions with other parents dwindle. She asked for ideas to cultivate more discussion in the community and to approach parents of at-risk youths.
Jochem said there is a need to “develop that new norm where it becomes more permissible for parents to talk to one another if they see warning signs in somebody else’s kid.”
He suggested making it a discussion point in parent organizations and looking to local youth organizations to establish avenues for open communication. Ultimately, what drives the opportunity for people to point out warning signs in someone else’s child is their relationship with that child, as well as how well they know the child’s parents.
He believes that if a person is concerned, they should go ahead and make the call to the parent.
“The worst that can happen is that they’ll tell you to mind your own business,” said Jochem.
One Lake Forest High School parent wanted to know what the school could do to move beyond the invasive mood of sorrow that her daughter and others are feeling in their classrooms while still honoring the tragic events that took place.
Jochem said it was important to for the school to acknowledge what happened. He cited a local high school where a student died from a drug overdose, and the school didn’t talk about it. But he points out that’s not what’s happening at Lake Forest High School.
“You have to have faith that over time, pretty quickly, the normal routines are going to kick in, you do want to turn your attention to celebrating what you’ve got here,” said Jochem. “But then you know what? There’s a lot of cool stuff that’s happened here and you want to celebrate who you’ve lost, remember and memorialize them and acknowledge their absence and know that you’re kind of inspired by them still and carrying some of them with you.”