Teen suddenly shifts from grief to apathy

Ask Amy

Amy Dickinson, Ask Amy Ask Amy

Amy Dickinson is a general advice columnist.

bio | email

DEAR AMY: My teenage brother, "Jamie," died last month in a car accident. My whole family misses him deeply, but I'm most concerned about my teenage sister, "Lana." She and my brother were constant companions. After a few days of nonstop crying, Lana's tears suddenly dried up, and she smiled and laughed quite normally. I was happy she seemed at peace, but then when other negative things piled up over the course of a few weeks (including the end of a friendship, a job loss and a robbery), she seemed abnormally unconcerned about any of it, still smiling and joking and shrugging it off with, "It doesn't matter; life goes on." Is sudden, extreme apathy a normal response to grief? Should I get my sister help or just write it off as her own way of coping?

--Concerned Sister

DEAR CONCERNED: My sympathies to all of you for this shocking loss. There is no one way to grieve and there is no one way to cope with loss. I'm sure you have noticed this in your own family, where each family member might have spun off in separate orbits of grief, handling this in his or her own way.

You should not write off any concern you have about a family member, and I agree that your sister's apathy in the face of repeated stresses is distressing.

She may be seriously depressed, disassociated or worse. And because she is a teenager (and not yet fully emotionally mature), you should not discount or make assumptions about anything.

Please get her in to see a mental health professional right away. Go with her and speak to the therapist together. It will be useful for all of you to have ongoing professional help.

The American Psychological Association hosts a helpful database of therapists; you can locate a therapist according to specialty and location. Check apa.org. Your family doctor can also make a recommendation.