Dealing with grief can be difficult, and it presents challenges specific to adolescents. While teens may experience the same stages of grief as adults, they experience unique difficulties related to their age at the time of their beloved one’s death. Other important factors will likely have implications on how teens deal with grief as well.
For instance, during the process of a chronic illness that results in a loss, family members may have already begun grieving while the beloved one that was lost was still alive. In contrast, if the loss was sudden and unexpected, this type of loss may be experienced as traumatic, and the residual symptoms can be more intense, and last significantly longer.
If loss and grief are new experiences, it may spur questions that may be difficult to answer, particularly if this was not a topic that was broached and openly discussed before. The relationship the adolescent shared with the deceased person will also be an important factor as the individual that was lost would have a unique role in the adolescent’s life, and this likely shaped how the adolescent interacted with and will remember the person lost.
How teens grieve differently.
1. Teens May Grieve Privately.
The open expression of and identification of emotions develops with maturity. Teens may be less comfortable with the open expression of their emotions. They may tend to grieve privately. For instance, they may cry quietly in their bedroom or the shower. In addition, they may keep their thoughts and emotions to themselves because they don’t want to burden family members with their grief while the family members are experiencing their own.
2. Teens May Express Their Grief Differently.
The method teens feel most comfortable processing their grief may be different than adults. For instance, they may struggle to express their grief with words, but they may use art, music, or journaling to process their pain. The tactile sensations felt when using these methods of expression sometimes make it easier to express the pain in methods other than talking.
3. Teens May Prefer To Talk With Friends.
Teens may feel more comfortable talking about the loss with their peers than adults, so don’t be offended if this is the case. Teens are more easily able to relate to their peers better than adults, and so they may feel more inclined to share their thoughts and concerns with their peers.
4. Teens May Describe The Loss As Unfair.
For instance, “Dad was supposed to walk me down the aisle…” or “Mom was supposed to be there when I have my first baby…” or “Grandma was supposed to be at my graduation…” are normal statements and represent the loss that they have experienced and will continue to experience as they encounter major life events. Dealing with grief can be difficult because the pain of losing someone close does not go away, but it will get easier with time.
What parents can do to help their teens through grief.
1. Give teens a safe place and a little space with safe people.
Although they may not grieve like adults, teens still grieve. Give them some space to allow them to grieve, provided it is a safe space with trusted people. Offer your home up once or twice per month so that your teen can invite a trusted friend over to stay the night. Make your home a place where teens will want to hang out – think bean bags, video games, and pizza.
If your teen wants to stay the night at a friend’s house and you’re comfortable with that, ask to speak with the friend’s parents ahead of time to introduce yourself and discuss the level of supervision, drive your teen so you know where they will be staying the night, meet the friend’s parents in-person to establish the plan for the night, and make sure your teen knows what time you will be back to pick them up the following day.
Outside of these special occasions, provide your teen with structure and routine. Structure and routine help teens anticipate daily activities and expectations, and although, at times, they may try to quarrel with you about it, they will do better because of it.
The key is to find a balance between providing a structured environment with consistency (this includes follow-through with consequences and discipline) while also allowing your teen to have choices so that they can feel a sense of control over their own lives.
2. Remember the person that is gone, together.
Following the death of a loved one, the focus may often be on the death, however, the person that was lost lived a life, and was experienced by the people in their life differently (depending on the relationship between the deceased person and the one who longs for them). Engage with your children by sharing a favored memory of the person lost and encourage them to share too.
For instance, “What do you miss most about grandma?” or “What’s one of your favorite memories that you had with your sister?” If they don’t have much to say, that is ok. Don’t push them to talk about the loss beyond what they are comfortable with. Give them time and continue to lead by example simply by expressing your own emotions (use feeling words), sharing memories, and encouraging them to do the same, when they are ready.
You can model the expression of your grief by simply stating your emotions and why you are feeling that way. Something like, “I’m sad because I miss grandma” or “I feel upset because I didn’t get to say goodbye” will do fine. Don’t push teens to talk about the loss. The open discussion can be helpful to navigate through the loss as there is a shared experience of having lost someone you loved.
3. Teens may need to hear that it’s not their fault.
If the loss was sudden and unexpected, the loss may likely have been traumatic. Teens may be especially prone to blaming themselves. If you hear any self-blame in your teen’s words, they will need to hear, “You feel responsible and it’s not your fault” (first validate how they feel and finish with what you want them to leave thinking about).
They may try to brush you off but keep telling them this. They need to hear it over and over so they will begin to believe it once the initial shock of the loss subsides.
Untimely and unexpected loss can be disconcerting, difficult to accept, and even harder to process because we often have a concept in our minds about when life begins, how it progresses, and when and how it should end. For instance, the natural progression of life is for parents to die before their children, but when parents die much earlier than would be anticipated in an average lifetime, this can be even more distressing for the child.
4. When is it time to seek professional help?
It’s always better to seek out the help of a mental health therapist earlier rather than later. It is especially important to seek out help anytime you become concerned with your teen’s behaviors, particularly any safety-related concerns such as binge drinking, self-harming, sexual promiscuity, the expression of suicidal thoughts, etc.
An individual therapist that has experience with grief may be helpful as the teen may need to process through the pain of grief and loss and develop some insight into why their behavior has changed since the loss. In addition, therapists can encourage the use of helpful and safe coping skills, help the teen identify areas that may be neglected, and focus on the teen’s daily self-care routine.
Another helpful option is a support group for adolescents with a similar kind of loss. As they begin to process this, they may become more open to discussing their emotions or challenges they have experienced following the death.
“Grief and Shame”, Courtesy of Anthony Tran, Unsplash.com, CC0 License; “Journaling”, Courtesy of Marcos Paulo Prado, Unsplash.com, CC0 License; “Friends Sitting on the Steps”, courtesy of Jarritos Mexican Soda, Unsplash.com, CC0 License; “Coffee Chat”, Courtesy of Prisiclla Du Preez, Unsplash.com, CC0 License