November 1, 2009 the month's new days and beginning of the season of thankfulness, started tragically with four more deaths of regional youth. This time the weapon was an automobile.
The debate over teen rights and whether or not they should be restricted further in their pursuits for driver's licenses is one that has been bouncing around for many years, perhaps decades. But only with the advent of the cellphone and texting has it resurfaced with a passion. Now we can add recklessness to the mix.
As stated in previous articles on teen rights and driving, the teen brain is wired differently than the adult's. At the ages of 13-19, sometimes younger or older, there are many changes physically, emotionally, mentally, and chemically that affect reason and risk-taking. But the tragedy of this past Sunday goes beyond this. We must now question not only these biological factors, but that of the law as well, since the eighteen-year-old driver had a dangerous driving record already.
The young driver was allowed to keep his license, and indeed graduate to an adult license, with a speeding conviction, two license suspensions, and pending tickets on his record. In the case of this accident, he had over the legal number of non-family passengers, was speeding, and ran a stop sign.
A new law will come into effect in February of 2010 which will limit the number of additional non-family passengers of a driver younger than 21 from the currently allowed two to only one. Yet this will not lessen the pain for the family of the one lost child. The community will struggle over the coming weeks and months with the thought of responsibility and where it is placed, whether on the shoulders of the youth driver, the parents, the legal system or a combination. Furthermore, the question has already arisen of the responsibility of passengers and their families, some of whom in this particular instance did give warning against driving with this individual. So who is to blame? That is one of the first questions being asked by those not grieving directly, and it is a natural part of the grieving process. We wonder why this driver's record was either unknown or disregarded? How do families and friends of the four dead youth and two injured now deal with their grief? And, where were the parents of the driver in this situation?
Grief has a cycle that varies for each person based on his or her needs and closeness to the event. It is like a drawing of concentric circles that get smaller as they near the center. The center of that drawing represents those people closest to the victims and might include not only immediate family members but lifelong friends, teachers and community if close-knit. As we progress outward from that center we will find those farther away in the victims' lives until we reach the community at large, others who have had similar experiences, and people who can relate to it by way of their own concerns for loved ones. Even within the various rings of grief, each individual will have a variety of experiences in the grieving process. The closer we go to the center, the more immediate trauma attention is needed to avoid later problems, such as (PTSD) Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.
The cycle of grief can include any of the following emotional and physical conditions. Parents, friends, family and other caregivers should watch for these while realizing they are normal. Everyone experiencing these will do so in different degrees for different amounts of time, and not necessarily in this order. These feelings really only become a serious problem when they interfere with regular life functioning such as health and well-being. However, being able to discuss them and/or explore them in a constructive way is helpful in lessening the possibility of more serious ingrained disorders. Teens may not readily be willing to open to their feelings with an adult. It is best to make sure they know they can come to you, create a safe place for them to share with their friends, and do not force them. They will come when they are ready.
Elisabeth Kulber-Ross introduced her theory of the five stages of grief in her book "On Death and Dying" in 1969. She defined these stages as Denial, Anger, Bargaining, Depression, and Acceptance.
Here is a simplified look at the emotions we might experience: Sorrow (a sense of emptiness and loss), Blame (trying to rationalize what has happened and find a reason for it. This may be blame of others or blame of self, Why didn't I...), Anger (How could this have happened?), Despair and Worry (Can it happen again? What will I do now?), Guilt (sometimes wondering why it wasn't us or if we caused it in some way. We might even feel guilty about dreading the little things we now have to deal with, such as paying the bills or enjoying life.) We may also experience physical illness but should not worry unless it takes over our lives.
How might we or our children express these feelings? They can take the form of depression, lashing out at others, loss of sleep or appetite, sleeping too much, eating too much, withdrawing from our regular activities such as missing school or work or giving up fun things, spending too much time alone, substance abuse or acting out in ways we normally do not. All of these things are normal in small doses as long as they do not last too long or cause injury to self or others.
Finally, some ways to encourage our young people to explore their feelings include talking opening about fears and concerns without judgement. This can be within family, among friends or with counselors. Many younger children might express themselves through play. It is not unusual for children to reenact their concerns or the events through role-play. Art and writing in a private journal are excellent for older children and creating an opportunity to celebrate or memorialize the lost life is good for closure.
To keep healthy during the grieving process, maintain a routine, get as much comfortable sleep as possible, drink plenty of water, exercise, spend quality fun time among other people, especially those who do not continually talk about the event, set rules for the family and keep them, stay away from too much news that repeats the event over and over. Find opportunities to laugh and don't be afraid to cry. Honor your feelings, they serve the purpose of helping you get through the hurt. Adults should let children know that they have feelings too, but at the same time must be supportive of the child.