Teens’ Talk About the Dreaded Question

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Q: Whenever I meet someone new and they ask about my loved one, I never know what to say. Any suggestions?

Recently, I have entered a new high school and going into it, I didn’t know anyone. Of course being a normal teenager, I worried about making friends and such but my main concern was explaining the loss of my dad. I quickly made friends and there are still many people that don’t know the story of why I live alone with my mom. An easy way to bring up the topic is telling a story involving your loved one. For me, I might be saying something funny about my dad and then add in that he passed away so that I can keep on with my story and there is no awkward silence. Later on it’s easier to have a real conversation about my dad with that person, since the ice was finally broken. – Claire, 15

Once, in third grade, when I was making a reference to my dad, I had a girl ask me why she hasn’t met him when at my house. I realized that she wasn’t aware that my dad had passed away. At the school I went to, it was common for the dad never to be home from his job, they were all big-wigs at major companies, and hardly had time for their families. A part of me was begging for me to not tell her, for fear of crying, but another part wanted me to tell her to risk having to do it at a different time. I had been pushing away the subject of telling my story because I was new in the school and didn’t want to feel even more awkward than I already did. I ended up telling her, and it wasn’t as hard as I had imagined, she is one of my best friends now for five years, and she doesn’t even flinch when I talk about my dad. She comforts me when I need comforting, and gives me a shoulder to cry on. I have never had an experience where telling my story to someone has turned out bad. Yes, there is that awkward silence when you’re done, but after that, it truly gets better. The saying, “telling your story heals you a little bit more,” does hold true to my life. Now that I’m older, I have learned that true friends will support you no matter what, and that it is actually a lot easier to tell your story to them then to keep it a secret. – Melissa, 14

It depends who you are talking to or how you feel. When I first got to High School, I was eager to leave the “Girl-Whose-Dad-Died” label behind, so I didn’t tell anyone. After about 6 months, I realized I didn’t feel like any of my new friends really knew me; my Dad is such a huge part of who I am. I told a few of them, and they all said they were sorry. It was as if I had placed down a barrier they felt they were unable to cross. Not everyone is going to handle death with the grace you appear to. With telemarketers, I let myself be angry. I say “My Dad died! If he can’t come back for me, why would he come back to you?” It may be rude, but I feel it is better to do this to telemarketers than keep the anger in or take it out on those you love or in violence. Sometimes when I first meet someone I try to ask about the other person’s family so they will ask about mine, that way we can get the awkward “My Dad died” conversation out of the way. I’ve learned it makes most people more uncomfortable than saying it will make you feel, in fact, sometimes it can even be a bit of a relief. I usually try to make a joke about it, like “okay, well, that was awkward!” It gets easier with time. And if you get a little choked up when you say you’re loved one is dead, it’s totally normal. – Sarah

At first I tried to avoid talking about my family with people I didn’t really know. I knew I would get alot of “Im Sorrys,” but I didn’t want people to treat me like I was different just because my father died. But I realized that people would find out sooner or later so if the subject of my parents would come up i just simply say, “My dad died 5 years ago.” If you are open with your loss, let them know it’s ok and you don’t mind talking about it. But if you’re not as open with your loss, just say, for example, “My dad died when I was 9,” and change the subject. And if the person continues to talk about your loved one, just ask if you could not talk about it. – Steph,15

I’ve learned to anticipate people’s reactions when they hear about my loss. They usually say something like “Oh. I’m sorry.” and then look away awkwardly because they don’t know how to respond. I try not to make them feel uncomfortable and let them know that I’m not offended that they asked. The situation is always more awkward if I act awkward about it. I’ve found that when people ask me if they can ask me questions, I always prefer that response. For me, that is so much better than the uncomfortable silence otherwise. There was of course a time when I was not ready to talk about my Dad with anyone and that is completely acceptable as well. – Candace, 18

I just say, “My dad died in 2006.”   (And if the question is about him, I just give the answer that was true when he was alive. i.e.: he was a lawyer [what was his job?]) – Julia, 13

For the first year or so, if someone asked about my Dad and I knew that I wouldn’t see them again or wasn’t going to have any sort of close relationship with them, I would avoid the question or say what was true when he was alive.  One time I was at camp for a few weeks and had a picture of my family.  A girl asked me where my Dad was and I told her that he was taking the picture.  It was just easier to be “normal” and not have to deal with an awkward reaction.

Now if it comes up, I usually will tell the person that my Dad died when I was eleven.  I’ve learned that if I’m just up front and open, most people will tell me they’re sorry and we can move on from there.  Since they were completely taken by surprise, I usually try to start talking again to ease that momentary tension.  Sometimes it’s awkward, but I barely even notice it anymore.  My Dad’s death is something that has shaped my life so much.  I wouldn’t be the person I am if things had turned out differently, so I feel like it is almost a part of me that I don’t mind sharing.  Plus, it’s much easier to talk about things now than it used to be.  The other thing that I like is that it sometimes triggers a really amazing conversation.  I realize that I have connections with the most random people, and that is really refreshing for me. – Sam, 17

If you’re shy about it then say what your other parent might be like or change the subject, it’s your choice to say what you want if it is a little or a lot that is your choice. If your an outgoing kind of person then you should try to start by “So what would you like to know about my loved one,” something like that would get the conversation moving. – Timmy, 18

Considering that they don’t know about the loss, I’d tell them that my loved one has passed away and moved on to a better place. Sometimes it’s hard to think about it, or even see the others’ reactions. But, it’s better for them to know. – Deanna, 13

One time a girl in my grade had never heard me talk about my Dad and assumed that my parents were divorced. One day I told her about my mom going out of town and she asked if I could stay at my Dad’s house. It took me a few seconds to figure out what she was talking about. I said, “No, I can’t. My dad died when I was eight.” Her face dropped and she totally freaked out and said she was so sorry. I told her that it was fine, that it wasn’t her fault, and that she didn’t know. Usually if you just tell the person flat out it makes everything easier. – Joelle, 14

Ultimately it depends on you and what you feel comfortable saying. But when I meet someone new and they ask about my dad, I explain that he passed away when I was eight and then I just try to paint the picture of what he was like and say how I think he was a great person. I don’t get too into detail about it, because who knows what their comfort level is about it. But I think it is best to at least lay it out there a little bit. – Sam, 18
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9 Comments:

  1. lizzy said on August 26, 2010 at 7:58 am ... #

    Just say that they died. Get it over with. Like, you know how it’s easiest to rip off the band-aid quickly rather than just scraping it off? It’s like that. Oh, and Claire? I find it incredibly hard to believe that you are really a teenager.

  2. Sneha said on November 2, 2010 at 7:42 pm ... #

    I’m kind of in the same boat as you. I was so glad when I got to start high school because I could make new friends without having the whole her mom died so be careful what you say around her thing. I soon realized that this was also a curse. I’d never really gone through having to tell anybody before because everybody already knew. It took me months to get up the courage to tell one of my friends. Another one of my friends found out when he made a joke that got me really upset. He apologized so much after that and I kind of felt bad at the end for making him feel bad. Does that even make sense? I guess I don’t like the whole awkwardness of the situation and how people start to pity you. I think the best thing to do is if it comes up in a conversation, just tell it to them straight. Or if you’re not ready, don’t. There are plenty of other things you can do to subtly change the subject. Believe me, I’ve done it before.

  3. jess said on August 20, 2011 at 5:11 pm ... #

    people who dont know ask me stuff, just normal questions, but i can never tell them he died, without getting upset. it’s not that i’m weak, i just dont have a friend i can talk to, because it feels weird talking to them.

  4. kelly said on March 8, 2012 at 5:03 pm ... #

    I’ve been at the same school since preschool, but tons of new kids came this year. A bunch of the new kids in my class started but then this really mean boy in my class who used to sit next to when my mom died was like, “at least I have one”, then my teacher gave us a lecture this morning about that and it was so humiliating cause everybody knew it was because of me, and i felt awful i couldnt help myself i slouched down in my seat and started crying then everyone was staring at me like i was freak n i ran out of the class room and the building and straight home i couldnt take it anymore i dont want to go to school tomorrow what should i do

  5. Lucy said on April 11, 2012 at 7:41 pm ... #

    My dad died when I was 3 years old, I’m now in high school. I’ve found that the most difficult thing to deal with is father’s day. One time, my friends were discussing what they were buying their dad, the question was being passed around then all of a sudden, everyone had answered, except me. At first I froze, for several seconds I literally did nothing, my friends looked at me funny and I realised I’d have to answer, I just said ‘I don’t buy him a present’, they responded by laughing and saying ‘that’s a bit tight, why not?’ I, very quickly, muttered under my breath ‘he’s dead’ I choked up. Then all my friends apologised countless times, offering help, asking if I was okay….I went bright red, uncomfortable, embarrassed. Alot of people say once people know it’s easier but I find it much harder, before when people asked I just lied about him and I escaped sadness by pretending his death didn’t happen, hiding behind a mask of lies, it was easier. Now I feel like everyone is walking on egg shells around me and I can never escape the sadness, it’s always there.

  6. Bron said on November 1, 2012 at 6:33 pm ... #

    My dad died when i was 7 and im 14 now, i still can’t bring up the subject about my dad. only about 4 of my friends know because i cant say anything without choking up. One time, i was at my friends house and her dad asked me what my dad did for a living. i burst into tears, i just cant handle it.

  7. Sonny said on April 6, 2013 at 3:44 am ... #

    Hi Kelly,
    I know it’s been more than a year since you posted that. Hope you pulled through it and are doing well. I want to tell you that you’re a very nice and kind person. You didn’t say anything mean to that boy in return, and it shows just how strong you are.
    Unfortunately, there are some really mean and ignorant people out there. They don’t recognise the hurt of others; either because they’ve never experienced anything of that sort, or they are bitter. You should know that it’s not about you. It is something they have to deal with. Forgive them and move on.
    Your mother must be really proud of you, for being the strong person that you are. I admire you. Remember, your real friends have got your back and will always stick up for you, and they are the ones who matter. All the best and lots of love.

    I lost my grandmother recently. Thankyou all for sharing your stories. It’s been truly helpful.
    It’s ok to let some people know, should they start wondering about your changed behavior. I wanted to share it, so I told an old school friend about it on the phone, in the midst of an unrelated conversation. She didn’t react, and quickly hung up, saying she’d talk later. Oh, well. Maybe it was awkward for her, or maybe she didn’t pay attention.
    So, I’ve decided to share it only if it’s really needed, and not for seeking support/letting it out. Anyway, I can’t talk about it as yet. Also, I don’t want people to pity me.
    I’m also going to follow the advice given by everyone. Thanks once again. May you all have happy lives.

  8. alyson said on April 26, 2013 at 2:44 am ... #

    I’d like to thank you all of you for sharing your stories. Like many if you I too have struggled with telling people about the deaths of my parents, both of whom did before I was 18; my mom died when i was 10 and my dad when I was 17. Although losing them was many years ago now, and I’m in my early twenties I can certainly relate to each one of you. With age I have gained a lot of perspective on my grief but as a teenager I always felt awkward sharing my story; mostly because I didn’t want people to feel sorry for me our treat me differently. I also had a hard time talking to my friends about it because they couldn’t relate and I was always the “strong” one. So my point it is you will find a way to tell your stories and I think it’s important that you have. Loss is overwhelming and it changes you, by but if you find a healthy and productive way to cope you’ll see how strong you are, you will have an insight much deeper than those that haven’t experienced grief and a better instantiating of who you are. I hope that you all are doing well on your “grief journies” and that you continue sharing your stories…..what you have shared here is incredible; you have created a network of support for each other and I thank you for you honesty and courage! take care

  9. ? said on June 14, 2013 at 3:59 pm ... #

    My dad died when I was 7. It’s weird how easy it is to type that with no problem yet I can’t tell my best friends. Two of them already found out from my sister’s friend and I’m not sure if they’ve told the others. I’ve set myself a target date to tell them by but I don’t think I can do it. I guessing they’ll find out one day or another. Better sooner then later.

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