Losing a Parent as a Teenager: What I Learned

The news of James Gandolfini’s sudden death while traveling in Italy with his family was eerily familiar. Something similar happened to me when I was about the same age as the actor’s 13-year-old son, Michael. Ten years ago, my mother, aunt, grandmother, and younger sister were in a car accident on the first night of our vacation in Mexico. My sister was the only survivor.

While the rest of the world will mourn the Sopranos star I’ll be thinking of his teenage son. Losing a parent is something that no child should ever have to take on but being a teenager makes it all the more difficult. Adolescents should be focused on discovering the opposite sex, disguising acrid body odor, coming to terms with hair in new places, hormone fluctuations, mood swings, sports, friends, and homework. Losing a parent puts all of those things on the backburner.

Over the past decade I’ve grown up, changed, hit rock bottom, pulled myself up, cried (a lot) and laughed (more). Although every death and their circumstances are different I now have some perspective. I offer advice that I wish I had received (but, honestly, probably wouldn’t have taken) to Michael and others out there that will unfortunately be dealt a similarly sucky hand.

  1. Find out who your real friends are and lean on them as much as you want. You deserve it. Some friends will fall by the wayside, uncomfortable with the pressure to support someone in their darkest times and retreat from your life. Don’t bemoan the loss and instead stick with the ones that have stepped up to the plate. The lost ones may come around someday so don’t discard them permanently.
  2. Talk to a therapist. The stigma of psychotherapy may turn most off but talking to an outsider truly helps. The professional is being paid to listen so don’t hold back any thought (no matter how crazy it may seem) or tears. Their office is a judgment free zone and really good ones have candy and snacks. Antidepressants help too. 
  3. Don’t forget to be a teenager. Teenage brains are swimming in hormones that make them incapable of dealing with anything beyond their next meal or latest crush. Don’t fault your peers for their lack of mental faculties and inability to have a conversation without looking at you like they’re thinking, “You’re that kid.” They’ll catch up to your maturity level someday. In the meantime, remember to lower yourself to theirs every once in a while and have fun. Tragedy transports you instantaneously from a cushy, comfortable childhood life into the scary, unfair, cutthroat adult world. Staying in on weekends to sit with your surviving parent while they have an extra large glass of Pinot is no way to spend your last years of irresponsibility.
  4. Watch a lot of TV. It is soothing and brain draining. It lets you escape into other worlds and gives you a break from your own. Watch Katherine Heigl’s greatest hits (avoid Life as We Know It) or The Best of Judd Apatow as guaranteed pick-me-ups. 
  5. Don’t try to be strong. People may expect you to put on a brave face, choke down your tears, or any of those other horrible clichés. I say screw them. Crying feels really good. And bawling your eyes out while screaming at the top of your lungs and punching pillows feels even better. Let your emotions run wild because the calm after the storm is absolute bliss. 
  6. Look forward to the future. Start planning the rest of your life out because the expression, “it gets better,” applies to you too! 
  7. Do the things you love. Don’t give up on extracurricular activities. Just because your life has had a seismic shift that will alter the outcome of the rest of your years doesn’t mean that the things that you used to love to do have dissipated. I followed my own advice and watched a borderline unhealthy amount of TV instead of playing on the sports teams that I had always gotten so much joy from. The adrenaline rush from exercising is an added bonus.  
  8. Family. Teenagers tend to hate their parents and fight with them for even the most mundane reasons. Death offers clarity.  It makes things like your annoying little sister taking your clothes without asking or a parent kissing you before school starts in front of all your friends seem special instead of blush inducing. Although your sister still deserves a talking to.