Community reaches out to teens coping with loss

The Milwaukee community, Jewish and non-Jewish, is mourning the loss of Brittney Gigl, a 17-year-old Nicolet High School senior who had just returned from spending her summer as an OZO (counselor-in-training) at the Steve & Shari Sadek Family Camp Interlaken, the resident camp in Eagle River operated by the Harry & Rose Samson Family Jewish Community Center.

She died Aug. 15 of encephalitis.

At her funeral on Aug. 17, Congregation Shalom was filled beyond its capacity with family and friends paying tribute to the outstanding academic athlete. Amid the assemblage were hundreds of teens — classmates, teammates, campmates and just plain friends. Some had known her their entire lives; others had merely sat next to her in class or had passed her in the school hallways.

All were there to memorialize the loss of one of their own.

Young people shouldn’t be called upon to deal with such a tragedy. But, as Rabbi Paul Kerbel of Congregation Beth Israel, said, “It’s times like this that remind us all of how fragile life is and teach us to treat each day as a blessing. We must treasure the time we have together with family and friends.”

With that in mind, how can parents, clergy, academicians and other professionals help the teen population — a generation that tends to think of itself as “invincible” — cope with loss?

Both the JCC and Nicolet have offered counseling sessions to the teenagers; the JCC also provided support to the sixth grade campers with whom Brittney had worked, and their parents.

Michael Mazius, Ph.D., child psychologist at the North Shore Center, participated in several counseling sessions at the JCC with Kerbel and Rabbi Leonard Lewy, director of the Jewish Chaplaincy Program of the Milwaukee Jewish Federation in cooperation with Jewish Family Services.

Mazius urges parents of teens facing such tragedies to “generate conversation with their kids about how they’re hurting and feeling. Also, I think it’s important to remind them that life is filled with uncertainty — that we can’t predict when life will end.

“As a recommendation, I think parents should tell their kids that death is usually reserved for the elderly and that loss of a peer is a very rare circumstance. If does happen, parents should focus on the importance of life while we are here.”

Mazius doesn’t think Brittney’s death will make her friends fear for themselves, but rather question how it could have happened. “Talking about what happened and what it means to their lives could be a good thing,” he said.

Reactions vary

In material provided by the National Association of School Psychologists, professionals note that one of the difficulties experienced by parents or other adults during a loss is the lack of time to deal with their own reactions before they have to deal with their child’s.

The NASP advises parents to be alert for long-term reactions affecting their children, such as sleep disorders, diminished interest in usual activities or disturbances in concentration.

“Reactions to grief can range from denial, anger, depression, bargaining and finally to acceptance. [H]ow these feelings are expressed will vary from child to child. Knowing what to say is often difficult. When no words seem appropriate, a hug and saying ‘this is really hard for us,’ will work,” according to the NASP.

Rabbi Shari Heinrich and Cantor Karen Berman of Congregation Shalom caution teens to be patient with each other as they deal with a tragedy.

“In coping with loss, everyone mourns differently,” explained Heinrich. “And for a young population, which doesn’t have experience in dealing with death, they need to be respectful of the way others act emotionally. They shouldn’t be judgmental when someone behaves in a way different than they do. Teens react differently when they are in shock, hurting and experiencing deep sadness.”

She added that it is important for the teens to know that they can lean on their parents and their peers for strength and support during difficult times.

Further, Kerbel believes it’s helpful for teens to stay in touch with the family “beyond shiva.” Continued contact will help the kids to incorporate some of their peer’s “meaningful qualities” into their lives, he said.

In response to the obvious questions of “how and why something like this can happen,” Kerbel said, “I don’t believe God ever wills anyone to be sick or die. Rather, I think kids need to recognize that there are random acts of nature. I don’t think God puts us in the path of a drunk driver, for example, because it’s our time to die.”

Lewy admitted that this is the toughest question he has to deal with. “I believe I’m in a relationship with God and when bad things happen it strains that relationship. It makes me angry and I yell at God. I struggle with myself and God, which is a tradition in Judaism. Also, Judaism believes in immortality and that our souls live on within everyone whose lives we’ve touched.”

“There are things I don’t understand,” Lewy said. “Judaism teaches that we don’t know how things work. I believe that God is in charge and in control of everything, but when I don’t understand his actions, I can be angry with him. Being angry helps me cope, but I still believe in prayer and have faith in God.”

One parent of a teen mourning Brittney’s loss, who asked not to be identified, stressed the importance of communicating with children. She said, “Sometimes I have the feeling that kids feel they need permission to talk about what happened. Death is scary, and I think they need to know that crying and laughing are okay.”

Lewy agreed, adding that it is important to help teens understand that “they shouldn’t keep their questions or their emotions inside. If kids feel guilt over not having an opportunity to say goodbye, they might talk about what they would have said.”

Other NASP suggestions for parents include allowing for fatigue, which kids likely will experience due to stress, and returning to a normal routine to provide them with a sense of stability and comfort.

Recommended readings to assist in the coping process include:

• “Straight Talk About Death for Teenagers,” by Earl A. Grollman (Beacon Press).

• “The Scared Child: Helping Kids Overcome Traumatic Events,” by M. Martin and C. Waltman-Greenwood (John Wiley & Sons).

• “When Bad Things Happen to Good People,” by Rabbi Harold Kushner (Schocken Books).

Brittney Eryn Gigl was born in Milwaukee and lived in Fox Point with her parents, Marta (nee Pumpian) and Bob Gigl, and brother Benett. She is also survived by grandparents Dorene and Bernie Westler and Hildegard Gigl, and great-grandmother Jeanette Johnson.

She was a member of Nicolet’s National Honor Society and played on the school’s varsity volleyball, basketball and softball teams.

Rabbis Ronald Shapiro and Shari Heinrich officiated at her funeral. Burial was in Mound Zion Cemetery.

The family would appreciate memorial contributions to the Brittney Gigl Memorial Scholarship Fund, c/o of the Nicolet High School Foundation.

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