Grief and Bereavement Resources for Youth
The teenage years are a period of personal change. These years can be challenging as we take on more responsibility and discover ourselves through relationships and exploration. As we move toward adulthood the teenage years invite us deeper into our minds, hearts, families, community and world.
As we move toward adulthood the teenage years invite us deeper into our minds, hearts, families, community and world. We explore, we grow in our bodies and we create our character. It’s a lot to take in at once. The journey is fast but exciting. And then someone dies. And suddenly, grief enters our world and everything feels different. We aren’t ourselves. Our busy, ever changing world gets even more turbulent.
What is grief?
Grief is your love for the person who has died. That’s the easiest way to think about it. All the pain, all the hurt, all the ache you feel is your love for that person. Grief is your love missing them and not finding them in the world.
We can grieve a person, a pet, a failed test or a lost wallet. We can grieve a romantic break-up and we can grieve the loss of our physical health if we get a serious illness. Grief is the big soup of feelings, thoughts, behaviours and beliefs that combines together when we lose something or someone that is important to us.
Grief tends to make other aspects of life like school, sports and hobbies seem suddenly pretty unimportant. It can dull the shine of life. It may even upset you that normal life goes on while you are experiencing such a huge moment of loss.
Grief is natural and built into us, but when it is happening it feels unnatural and we often want it to go away.
Grief is permanent
When we lose someone, a friend or relative, we grieve them for life. It doesn’t mean we feel awful forever, but our hearts are always aware that the person is not with us on earth anymore. It’s hard. We would rather they were here…
In time, the pain reduces, and we can even think of the lost person fondly and with smiles and laughter. But there is always a bittersweetness and we never really “get over our loss.” That would mean forgetting the person who died… and that’s not an option.
Grief is like glitter. No matter how much you try and tidy it up, you’re never going to get rid of it all. —Emma, age 13
Grief is natural
All grief feelings are good—they are not easy to feel—but they are natural. They will not destroy us and they won’t hurt other people. Feelings are best when shared.
Most of the time we avoid feelings because we are afraid of being vulnerable and weak. We don’t like feeling out of control. Grief can feel like a tidal wave rushing down on us, but research shows that even the most powerful emotions only last between 7-15 minutes before the wave of feelings lessens. Everything passes. Even titanic moments of loss.
Grief comes in waves
Grief tends to shuttle back and forth between heavy loss and hopeful energy. Sometimes grief feels like despair and emptiness and sometimes we can feel energized about the future and genuinely excited about life. You may feel like you’re a rubber ball bouncing around in your emotions but this is how grief works. We move in waves between pain and relief, despair and hope.
After some months you will probably discover that you spend less time thinking about loss and more time being engaged in living your life. There will be spikes of pain from time to time but the bouncing is a little less distracting.
They don’t teach you how to feel in public school. They don’t offer a credit course on emotional literacy in high-school. Some of us learn from our families and friends that our difficult feelings are “bad” or “negative.” By the time we experience a death, we may already have learned to push our strong feelings down. When we stuff our painful feelings down, we get so full of them that they often explode later as anxiety, depression and other mental health challenges.
Grief introduces our hearts to intense new feelings. When someone we love dies we can experience profound upwellings of sadness, fear, loneliness, confusion, anxiety and anger. This big mix of emotions can feel overwhelming. We may never have felt this much or this strongly! Grief can feel awkward at first, but if we are patient, it opens us to new levels of human experience and self-understanding.
The big three challenging feelings that grief presents us with are ANGER, SADNESS and FEAR. Pretty much every hurtful, disturbing or so-called “negative” feeling related to grief will fall under one of those three headings. It is really important for us to learn how to experience these hard emotions.
Feelings in the body
If you want to learn about your feelings there is one good place to start. Your body! We learn about feelings from feeling them in our body as physical sensations.
You might want to pay attention to your body during grief. When a relationship ends by death we experience that loss as discomfort in our body. We will have all sort of thoughts and ideas about the death, but the prime way grief enters our lives is through really uncomfortable and unwelcome bodily sensations like:
- Heavy, aching or tight feelings over your heart
- Empty or hollow feelings inside
- Weakness, exhaustion, tiredness, sleepiness
- Tense stomach or flutters.
- Stress in your body, muscles and joints
- Cramps, dry mouth, loss of appetite or digestive issues
- Restless energy, sleeplessness, jitters, hyperactivity or anxiety
- Heat in the face, high heart rate and increased breathing
- Tight throat, trouble getting full lungs of air
- Headaches, stomach aches, muscle tension
- Tingling and other odd sensations in the body
- Nausea, ringing ears, sweating, itchiness, dry skin, hair loss
Grief is just sadness and it’s kind of like you have just this hole in your chest or like this missing part of you. —Lilly, age 14
If you pay attention to your body when you are grieving, you will discover that much of what we call grief are the uncomfortable feelings that flood our body. These feelings cause us to cry and weep, curl up in a ball on the couch, withdraw in fear, feel vulnerable and shy, or get really enraged and angry at life for taking away someone you love.
PRO GRIEF TIP: Noticing how your body feels
Sit in a chair in a quiet room away from other people. Turn your attention toward your body. Notice how it feels inside. Now put one hand over your heart and one over your belly and ask your grief “what are you feeling about losing ____________ today? ” Now just feel whatever comes. If emotions arise, let them come and then let them pass. But notice that emotions have a strong physical expression. Later, share with someone you trust what you experienced.
Behaviours of grief
You can think of feelings as engines that give us the power to act in the world. The emotion of excitement moves us to explore! Happiness inspires us to play and discover. Sadness allows us to mourn at funerals and cry. Anger pushes us to protect ourselves. Fear gets us moving in the direction of safety and security. Without emotions we couldn’t do anything at all. Take away emotion and we are no more than zombies.
Your emotions may cause some of the following grief behaviours:
- Warm remembrances flooding in with tears
- A deep desire to be around others and be cared for
- And urge to share with others how you feel
- Laughter and crying intermixed
- A deep feeling of life’s importance
- Strong feelings of love for the deceased
- An urge to be creative, to express the feelings inside
- A spiritual connection to ancestors and all who come after us
- Pushing down tears if you are male
- Overeating or starving yourself
- Sleeping all the time and feeling lazy
- Lashing out at people suddenly
- Anger toward the deceased for leaving, dying
- Loss of faith in God or a sense that nothing matters
- Guilt feelings that you did not do enough or love enough
- Mood swings, confusion and bursts of strong emotion
- Withdrawal and isolation—going quiet
- Getting totally paralyzed —being unable to function
- Becoming hyper-responsible (taking on parental role)
- Fearfulness and dread about the future
- Fear of losing anyone else to a death, and of one’s own mortality
Not every behaviour that we have during grief is helpful to us, but we are not going to act perfectly when we are hurting… We are raw and vulnerable and sometime we’re going to be cranky, angry and unapproachable. Be extra gentle with yourself during grief.
Death of the physical body
Grief teaches us how important touch and physical presence are to our relationships. We would give anything for one more minute with the living body of the person we lost. We no longer have their hugs, their voice, their support and their encouragement.
If you saw the body of your deceased loved-one after the death, or if you found the body, that image may remain with you for weeks. It can appear suddenly at odd times. This is normal. Our mind replays that difficult image to remind us that the person is really dead. This seems impossible for our hearts to understand, so our brain keeps showing us the image again and again until we finally can accept that they are dead.
Grief is complex
Grief is complex. It can be tricky to know how to act and what to feel. If a sibling dies, we can feel insignificant—so much attention is being paid to the dead brother or sister. Who are we to express our needs to our grieving parents? If a grandparent that has died, we may see our parent grieving and not want to “burden them with our pain.” And so we hide our grief inside. At the same time, we might not even really be fully taking the death in ourselves. Death can seem so impossible at first. Like a movie. This can’t really be happening to me…can it?
It was two years ago. Almost two years ago now. He was kayaking and he was by himself. He was going to be home the next day and he, um…never came home. So it was hard because we had to report him missing and everything. And after the first couple of days it was like, you knew, but it was still like, no no, it can’t be… and then, you know, after we found him it was like, oh, this is real… —Heather, age 17
If the death was a suicide or a terrible accident, we may not know what to say or how to present our feelings to people. There is no easy way forward, but we don’t have to do it right—we just need to be ourselves and do our best.
It is very possible that this is your fist exposure to death. But even if it is not your first experience, don’t expect every death to feel the same. Each loss is different because you have a different relationship with each person.
Many factors that impact how grief feels inside of us:
- our relationship with the person that died (were we in a good place with that person?)
- the manner of the death (natural or traumatic?)
- how involved we were in the dying process
- whether we were able to say goodbye
- whether we have a supportive community
- our homelife and our present mental health
- the way we cope with hard feelings and distress
- our age and our physical wellness among others
- will the death impact our families’ financial security?
Grief is rarely simple. We’re not simple people and we don’t have simple relationships. Even the most solid loving relationship can prove difficult at times. You may have had a fight with your mom the night before she died, or had a challenging relationship with a grandparent. These realities are normal while the person is alive, but after a person dies, these feelings can fester and create guilt in us. You may need to talk to someone who can help you work through these feelings.
Grief leaves us with questions
The severing of a living relationship can leave us feeling lost and swirling in a sea of confusing questions:
- Who am I without this person?
- Will I ever be safe again?
- Can I ever be happy again?
- Is life good or is it unfair?
- What is God’s role in suffering and death?
- Why do people experience pain?
- What are people thinking about me and my family
- How much emotion should I show people?
- What does it mean if I keep feeling sad for a long long time?
There are lots of unanswered questions. Don’t be anxious about answering every question. As the great psychologist C. G. Jung wrote: “sometimes we don’t answer the questions, we simply outgrow them.” In time, you’ll figure everything out that you need to figure out…
The people we lose
When parents die
When a parent dies, of an illness or without warning, we are suddenly faced with so many questions, problems and emotions. Just when we’re supposed to be growing independent, we’re thrown into this crushing experience that makes us need support and care more than ever. It sucks.
When a parent dies, our trust of the world can become damaged. We can feel less okay. We can fear that our chances for moving forward into our future have been hampered. The whole teenage project of having fun experiences and making friends can feel like it has gone down the toilet.
After a parent dies, the internal experience of sadness, fear and anger can be monumental—indescribable.
- Who am I without this parent?
- Will my other parent be okay?
- Who will I become now?
- Who will pick up all these responsibilities?
- Can my other parent handle the stress?
- If I strike out on my own to university or college, am I abandoning my family in their sorrow?
- Could I handle a new step-mom or step-dad?
My mom was the leader of the household. She was the one who paid the bills, she took care of scouts and school and baseball. The hardest thing isn’t the memories I have with her, it’s the memories I won’t be able to have with her in the future. —Tommy, age 15
Teens grieving a parent can sometimes try and block their feelings. They want to be strong for the other parent, for their siblings, for their community.
Several research projects have discovered that adolescents that report fewer grief responses to their parents’ death also report greater feelings of loneliness, depression and lower self-esteem. So hiding your grief feelings about parental loss may not pay you well in the end. It’s something worth thinking about.
When siblings die
After the death of a child, some parents report that surviving children appear less troubled by the death than they expected. Parents may think you’re coping really well, or else don’t care as much as they do. Almost always, both of these ideas are wrong.
Siblings that are in grief are very skilled at hiding or masking their feelings. They do this to help bring calmness to a chaotic emotional family life. You may have never seen your father brought so low with p, never seen pain or your mother so withdrawn and closed off. This can be frightening when you yourself are vulnerable and needing support. And so you act like you’re okay. It makes sense.
Inside, however, teens report a very different story after sibling loss: feelings of shock, numbness, loneliness, guilt, shame, despair, anger, confusion, fear that their distress will never stop, rage at the medical establishment or cause of the death, or even anger toward the sibling themselves if they somehow helped cause their own death.
Parents can become overprotective following a sibling’s death. You may feel they’ve put you in a protective bubble. If this happens, you may want to talk to your parents about easing their grip on you. They are just scared they will lose you too. It’s their fear mixing with their love.
Each sibling grieves differently. Some fall into a daze, become distressed for weeks, overwhelmed by emotions and may even become depressed. Other’s will use the death as a reason to thrive, to live for the deceased sibling and turn their mourning into some future oriented task. No matter how you respond, it’s your own grief your way and all these different grief responses move us toward a better tomorrow. Some faster some slower.
When friends die
Sometimes we feel closer and more understood by our friends than by our families. This can make the death of a friend really painful. It can feel so unfair. How can people die so young?
Teens tend to hang out in groups that become very tight and bonded. This can intensify the loss and send shock-waves through our friendship circle. If this is our first death, the feelings and implications can be bewildering and our distress can overwhelm our ability to cope. The group itself can become fragmented and struggle to stay together.
Hopefully, you will take great comfort from your surviving friends. If you can, find ways to remember your lost friend. Construct a memorial. Make a photo album, a memory box or an online memorial where people can post stories and pictures. Keep that person’s name alive as you speak with each other. Be willing to be sad together and also laugh and enjoy the memories of good times.
Accidents, suicide and murder
Teens are less likely to die than any other age group! They are healthier and happier and than they have ever been in human history. Medicine, sanitation, access to food and shelter have increased the life expectancy for teens.
Sadly, when death does interrupt a teen life it is often because of an accident, suicide or homicide. And lately, over-dosing on narcotics is getting more frequent.
This means that teens often lose people in really difficult and traumatic ways. Often, the death may have been preventable. It would be hard to assess how many needless teenage deaths are the results of poor choices made while intoxicated…
Teens who have never experienced losing someone in such an awful manner may tend to underestimate or dismiss the intensity and duration of their grief. Sadly, the aftermath of suicide and homicide can take years to heal and cause a lot of pain for everyone involved.
Although suicide is the third leading cause of death in adolescents and teens, the statistics show that very few teens actually follow through with suicide. It is further understood that suicide is almost always a gesture for help gone horribly wrong.
Grieving a friend’s suicide can take a long time and make for a more chaotic bereavement. You definitely need to get help if you have lost a person to suicide.
If one of your siblings or parent’s died by suicide this can also bring us shame and fear that people will think there was something wrong with our family. This can cause us to go silent and experience shame.
Losing someone by murder can prolong your grief and make it really easy to get stuck in anger and fear. Again, seek professional help if you have lost someone to a violent homicide.
Traumatic deaths can have troubling impacts on our mental health:
- Intrusive thoughts and memories
- Rumination about the manner of the death
- Cognitive impairments and problems thinking
- Acting out and highly risky behaviours
- Fear of the future and dread of death
- Social withdrawal and difficulty being close to people
- Nightmares and sleep difficulties
- Avoidance of triggers and reminders of the death
Coping and healing
Grieve like you!
Because you are a unique person, with a character and personality all your own, your grieving style will also be unique.
Don’t worry about how you appear to other people. Chances are, everyone is in their own pain and not concerned with your grief. Relax. You don’t need to focus too much about whether you are feeling exactly as other people are feeling, or if you are crying less or more than others, or feeling more emotionally together or more disorganized than other people. You can grieve your way.
Grief is a wild thing and it can be challenging to know how it will impact you one minute to the next. You may have many conflicting feelings and thoughts inside. That’s okay. You can hold it all. As the great American poet Walt Whitman said, “I am large. I contain multitudes.”
PRO GRIEF TIP: Writing it down fast
Take a piece of paper or open a word document and write for five minutes about all the feelings and thoughts that you feel during grief. You can also draw or paint. Let everything just spill out onto the page: all the opposites, the good the bad, the happy the sad, the feelings, the thoughts, the fears, the cheers. Just write and let it all be there. When you are finished, put it in a safe place and don’t read it until the next day. How do you feel having done this little exercise?
Numbing and taking breaks
When we’re overloaded with feelings and not coping very well we can sometime choose to numb our feelings. Although most don’t, some teens use alcohol, weed and other pharmaceuticals to ease their pain and anxiety. Some disappear into video games. Other’s skip school or engage in risky or impulsive behaviours.
There are healthy ways to take breaks from pain:
- Athletics and sports
- Music and dancing
- art and creativity
- camping in the outdoors,
- hiking and swimming,
- reading and learning
- being around friends,
- reading good books
- writing and journaling,
- slowing down and taking a break
- Yoga and meditation.
The list is endless. It’s healthy to take a rest from your grief. Just watch that the rest doesn’t become an escape that creates a new bunch of problems.
Courage and curiosity
Grief offers us a chance to learn how to accept, manage and experience our difficult feelings. But that takes gentleness, courage and curiosity. It’s easy to avoid feelings. It’s easy to act strong and unbothered by grief. It takes courage to feel those bodily sensations, to allow the heartache inside to express itself.
If we are being aggressive with ourselves, saying we are weak and useless, we will only be adding to our pain. Be compassionate and soft with your broken heart. You have enough pain already.
It takes curiosity to wonder what happens to us on the other side of pain and loss. It’s like climbing a mountain. It’s hard as we go up, but when we reach the top, we can see things in a new way. We see a new world, new directions to journey. If we just pretend that everything is fine, we stay trapped where we are. We never move. We never grow and our world remains very small.
Grief grows us
Grief changes us. It’s not a change that we want but it’s change all the same. Grief, though painful and at times confusing, can aid in your growth as a human being. Grief will mature you in ways that joy, distraction, knowledge and playfulness never will. But it doesn’t come easy.
When we accept our grief, we develop the capacity to feel more. And when we feel more we end up feeling better. The famous neurologist Antonio Damasio reminds us that human being are wired to feel “better than fine.” Even after grief.
As it turns out, it is our ability to accept and experience our losses that makes us grow the most! When we experience an emotional challenge and grow through it, the next challenge is easier to encounter. We grow stronger by living through our times of weakness.
Research shows that teens experiencing grief tend to be more compassionate and other centered. They have higher levels of courage during distress and many of them show advanced signs of personal growth and self-understanding.
Growth isn’t a booby prize that you get when someone dies. It’s just how we are designed genetically. You will always grieve the person who died, but you will find a way to grow through it.
Coping with people
It’s good to gather with our family and friends but sometimes, grief can make us feel like aliens. You make not like how grief makes you stick out among your friends. You may not be your usual self. Your heavy or stormy moods can make it difficult to hang out with people.
You may sense that your friends are acting weird around you because of the death. It can be hard to fit in when your heart is broken. The light cafeteria banter may seem offensive to you when you are struggling with a loss that makes everything else people are talking about seem like so much popcorn.
When you are with friends, you don’t need to downplay your grief and you don’t need to exaggerate it. Chose carefully who you share with and remember it is your story to tell, or not tell.
Funerals and ceremonies
I hope you can trust your feelings enough to be present at the funeral, ceremony or wake if there is one. It is good to participate in the rituals that help us move through grief. These have been with us a long time. Being absent can add to your pain and sense of abandonment.
If the body is present, it can be good for us to say goodbye one last time. Seeing a dead body will not make things worse, it will only confirm what we already know. That our loved-one is indeed gone. And it is good to see what death really looks like.
Consider offering something at the ceremony that is uniquely yours. You could paint something, or write a poem or song in honour of the deceased. You may want to dress a certain way, or be involved in the burial, or offer a reading or prayer. You may wish to carry the coffin, or help prepare food or be a supportive person during get-togethers.
Some teens feel too overwhelmed or anxious to do anything at all—and that’s fine too. You’re allowed to do whatever you need to do to. There are no rules.
School and studying
As a way of distracting themselves from their grief, some teens apply themselves to schoolwork. Don’t be surprised, however, if your concentration and memory is not working as well as you’re used to.
I didn’t put as much importance on my studying. I wouldn’t say like it really affected me like I didn’t want to study or anything, but I think I probably was not as motivated. I studied less. I just had so much on my mind. I was busy thinking about myself and I guess about everything I was going through. I didn’t feel like I had to study. I guess I thought I had an excuse.
(Balk, 1981. P294)
Many teens report feeling they cannot perform at school as well during grief and it is very common for there to be a drop in grades. This is a temporary problem and will resolve as the months go by and you begin feeling less sad all the time.
Over time, you will adjust to the death of the person you lost. This takes time, conversation, solitude and some hard emotional work. In the months after the death, you may notice that you feel strange, sad, uneasy, heavy or withdrawn on certain special days:
- Birthdays (yours or theirs)
- Significant moments like proms, graduations, weddings, successes
- Birth of your first child
- Father’s Day and Mother’s Day
- The anniversary of the death or the day you learned about the death
Inside of us, there are lots of feelings bouncing around. On special days they tend to burble up and remind us how much we love and miss the deceased. Often, the lead up to these special occasions tends to be worse than the actual day!
To defuse the weirdness, plan something special for holidays and special moments. If you give yourself something to look forward to, if you plan a little ritual or remembrance on those days, it will ease the anxiety of the build up.
You may also wish to reflect gently on what life might be like if they were still around. It’s a question that is always there in the background.
- How proud would they be?
- What might they say to you on this day?
- If they were not the warm and fuzzy type, what would they do to show you they were aware of your accomplishment?
- What kind of a gift would they give you—would you give them?
Grief pulls at the very roots of our lives and can leave us feeling alone and unanchored. One really important thing to remember is to rely on your community of family, friends and professionals.
Teens tend to make deep and lasting connections with their friend circles and these can be a great support during grief. But remember that your other teen friends may be just as inexperienced as you at death and loss. It’s a good idea to seek out some adults to talk to as well. A trusted spiritual mentor, teacher, parent, relative or therapist may be able to provide you with a place to talk openly about your fears and concerns.
Talking about loss is not a one time deal. You will need to tell the story many times, and bring up the name of your lost loved-one in countless ways. Don’t worry about repeating yourself or boring anyone with your narrative. The people that love and care for you will listen.
One of the things that we human beings are good at is making meaning out of our lives. Death can really mess up our lives and make it hard to know what anything means. Here are some questions that can guide your meaning making heart:
How did this person change who you were and influence your way of acting and being in the world?
What aspects of their personality and character do you wish to take into your life as part of their legacy to you?
What aspects of them do you not wish to continue? What painful cycles do you wish to stop?
How has this death impacted you—in what ways have you matured, in what ways do you still struggle?
How has this death changed your relationships with other people, both family and friends.
What is one thing that your deceased loved-one would want for you that you are presently withholding from yourself?
After a death, reminders of the person can hurt. Take your time and be gentle with yourself as you slowly learn to be around things and people and situations that remind you of the deceased person. You don’t have to throw yourself in the deep end. You can take it one little reminder at a time, and even then, it’s okay to take a step back if the feelings are too intense.
Visiting the graveyard can be a good way to connect with the deceased. If you have a place that makes you think of them, go there and feel their presence in the wind and trees.
Writing in a journal is a great way to remember a person and also to work through your thoughts and feelings. If you don’t have the energy to form paragraphs, then make a bullet diary.
e.g. July 15
- I woke up feeling sad today.
- Not sure how I will ever enjoy fishing again without Grampa
- Had a better day at school
You can write a song or a poem. You can paint a picture or make a sculpture with clay. Create a memory box of beloved items and photos that remind you of your lost loved-one. Keep it somewhere special.
PRO GRIEF TIP: Write them a letter
Write a letter to your lost loved-one. Tell them how you miss them. How grief has impacted your life. Tell them all you feelings, concerns, fears, hopes and wishes. Finish by writing down how you plan to honour their life with yours.
Wait a day, and then write a letter from your deceased loved-one to you. Let them respond in their voice to your letter. Let them tell you how they feel about you. What they miss. What they hope for you. What it is like where they are. End with them offering you a gift to carry in your heart forever.
Caring for yourself
While we’re in it, grief can feel the only channel on TV. We can forget to eat, exercise, play, talk with friends, be creative, spend time outdoors or get proper rest. Once things calm down a little you may want to do something healthy and active to make you feel a little more alive. Eating, sleeping and physical activity are the big three easy roads to feeling better.
Play is our natural way to create endorphins and other brain chemicals that make us feel good. Play can feel childish or disrespecting of the dead, but we really need to have fun laugh, stretch our bodies and feel good inside from time to time during grief. Kids do this very easily. They move from tears to laughter in no time. Remember? It’s okay to play. What is something you could do that would get you a million miles from your sadness right now?
Adults helping teens
Simply put, to help teens grieve we need to listen and accept all that we hear.
Teens are notoriously tight-lipped. They get a bad rap about being too emotional and sensitive or too quiet and withdrawn. They can’t seem to get sympathy at either end.
When teens do talk, they can often find themselves receiving advice, corrections, soothing words or minimization. It’s heartbreaking when they talk and nobody has time to hear them. Teens need us to drop whatever we are doing when they talk and be prepared to listen.
A good general rule is to not force the conversation. Be invitational. Lead with your own story and experience. Allow the discussion to arise naturally.
Teens haven’t yet worked out their inner world. They’re still figuring out who to trust, what is real, how to manage feelings. They’re learning what strength and vulnerability mean and how to navigate large situations with complicated emotional contents.
So it’s not surprising that they find themselves kicked back and forth between silence and dramatic expression as they experiment and try things out. Fundamentally, teens want to know that their thoughts, feeling and impressions are respected and listened to. Especially their feelings.
Even if you think they’re off-the-mark with their ideas, it will be more healing and powerful to reflect back exactly what you have heard and thank them for sharing. This will help them to feel trusted and less insecure in your presence. From this place, they may actually be interested in knowing what you think and how you’re feeling. This is when you can provide your perspective on things.
Everyone pays lip service to the idea that every grief is unique, until they hear something they don’t like. We can be tempted to want to guide our teen through grief—to ensure they are safe—to be the guardrails keeping them from going over the emotional cliff. But teens really just want your presence and your warm attention. They don’t want to be scrutinized or analyzed. They don’t need you to sanitize their world or swaddle them in safety blankets. They have their own souls and their own brains and they will figure things out their own way and they will heal their way. Hopefully with you by their side.
Try standing with your teen without interfering too much. Allow them to lead and let them know you’re proud of their work. You can, of course, teach by example, by living through your grief as healthily as possible. By sharing with them of your sorrow and your joy and allowing them access to your vulnerability.
Parents and guardians walk a fine line between protection and self-disclosure. A teen doesn’t need to know about every bruise on your soul, but they will be watching you closely, and they will know intrinsically if you are okay or not okay. So err on the side of honesty and openness.
Teens will have questions about the death and grief and it’s best to answer with as much clarity as you can muster. Teens are curious and do well with facts. If they learn they have been kept in the dark and treated like “children” they will become bitter, resentful and likely pull away.
Teens may have secret concerns about their new role in the family or community. You may want to bring this up yourself, assuring your teen that they can continue being themselves. If there are new roles and responsibilities as a result of the death, these need to be clarified and discussed as soon as possible.
If the death was suicide, murder, OD or tragic loss there can be hidden shame and confusion. Your teen may have many questions about moving and living in the world as a person touched by such a horrific tragedy. Don’t remain silent and hope everything is okay. It probably isn’t.
Your teen will likely stifle and mask the flood of emotions they feel. They may put on a strong front and get very busy helping others. Others withdraw into their rooms or disappear into their phones. Give them plenty of support and appreciation for what they are accomplishing and when the moment is right, ask them how they are doing inside. Tell them you know they are grieving and are here for them whenever they need support. If you are also grieving, remind them that just because you’re sad doesn’t mean you can’t hold them and care for them.
Speaking of holding your teen—do a lot of it. And if you can, hold each hug as long as possible. Touch your teen gently, put a hand to their face, kiss them, high five them, fist bump them, do whatever you can to let them know that you are physically there for them. Teens may act all Clint Eastwood and self-reliant, but they need tenderness as much as anyone.
If, for whatever reason, you’re not the person they want to share with, help them find appropriate outlets: teens will eventually express themselves through art, writing, therapy, dance, music, sports, outdoors activity, romance or some more professional form of therapeutic engagement that helps them move that grief energy into the world.
Teens who get really stuck in grief can get in trouble. Anxiety, depression, social withdrawal, trouble as school, chronic drug and alcohol use, sexual impulsivity, suicidality and identity confusion can arise when teens are unable to address the powerful feelings inside them. If you see this start happening, seek out help quickly.
Reasonable and fair limits on your teen’s behaviour will help them feel safe and secure emotionally. Rebellious behaviours and acting out needs to occur within parameters that are safe for friends and family. Be aware that when we set boundaries like this, they need to be firm and that expectations need to be very clear and agreed upon.
Teens will react negatively to your boundary limitations if they are overreactions to normal and healthy grief responses. Some parents get worried if their teen’s grief doesn’t look exactly like theirs. Be careful not to mistake drama for danger. Teens can be volatile, moody and quick to attack on a normal day! In the middle of these melees it can be tricky to ascertain when a teen’s grief is getting into the red zone, so stay attentive, bring grief up whenever you can, and work to improve communication and respect.
Teachers, coaches and other important adults in their lives should probably have some level of insight into your teen’s grief. You can tell your teen that these people will be informed so they have a say as to how much these people know. However, if no one knows anything, your teen may begin to feel like no one cares and that the loss doesn’t matter to the world. This can feel lonely and hurtful.
Remember that grief is a lifelong experience, so make lots of space for your teen to work things out. It is not uncommon for normal grief to take between 6 months and two years to feel better. Traumatic losses can take even longer to heal. Murder, suicide and sudden deaths can take 5 years or so.
Join your teen in celebrating and/or remembering the important milestones in their lives without the deceased. Pretending those days aren’t important or glossing over them can add pain and confusion to your teen. Even if they don’t seem enthusiastic, provide an opportunity for remembrance.
For more information about grief and loss visit: www.royfellis.com
Grief Out Loud: Teens Talk About Loss
Teens Talk Grief
Grieving teens share their stories and talk about what helped as they journeyed through the grief of losing someone close to them.
Teen Grief: Mourning Hope Grief Center
Information on teen grief from the Mourning Hope website.
Resources for grief
A website to help understand your grief and resolve some of the most difficult questions that may arise.