Teen Grief 101: Helping Teens Deal with Loss

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The Psychology
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Teen Grief 101: Helping Teens Deal with Loss

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Words by:

Madelynn Vickers

Illustration by:

Words by:

Madelynn Vickers

Illustrator:

Contents

Grief is an unavoidable part of life. No matter what you do, grief will find you.

Although it is a natural side effect of losing a loved one, we tend to have a pessimistic outlook on the grieving process. Many are taught at a young age that expressing “negative” emotions is wrong, which makes the grieving process profoundly difficult.

The reality is, however, losing someone you love is a heart-wrenching experience for anyone, which means crying, screaming into your pillow, and distancing yourself are all acceptable ways to cope.

But for many, grief is first experienced during adolescence when coping skills are only just beginning to surface, specifically during the ages of 13 to 18.

During this stage of our lives, our bodies are developing both physically and mentally. This makes the grieving process, on top of self-discovery and self-identity, a grueling ordeal.

Common Ways Teens View and Deal With a Death

When my parents told my brother and me that our Paw had passed away suddenly, my first reaction was to drop to my knees and bawl. I was 16, and I already had my fair share of dealing with loss.

But this loss was different. I was very close with my Paw, and his death was completely unexpected.

An overwhelming wave of sadness, confusion, shock, disbelief, and anger crashed into me all at the same time, but the only thing I could do was cry. And I cried a lot.

There are many ways a teen may view and deal with a loss though. There is no formula for dealing with grief, and even if there was, it would be unsolvable to humans. We all experience a vast amount of emotions throughout our lifetime, but adolescence is often times the stage when we first endure a loss.

Teens have an understanding, but do not know how to cope.

Many adolescents have an adult understanding of the concept of death but do not have the experiences, coping skills, or behavior of an adult. For bereaved teens who haven’t yet experienced the landslide of emotions related to loss, most will not possess sufficient self-care knowledge to properly cope.

There are many children’s books and movies, such as Bridge to Terabithia, The Lion King, and Up (to name a few), that deal with grief and loss. Through these books and movies, we are taught what death is, but we are not taught how to deal with it.

For parents, family and caregivers to teenagers, it is important to normalize the whirlwind of emotions they may be feeling.

Telling the bereaved teen to “be strong” may cause anxiety and cause them to hide their emotions or act “fine” when they really are not. Instead, tell the teen that it is okay to cry, to distance themselves, and to do what brings them comfort (so long as they do not turn to self-destructive behaviors).

Some may act out or be reckless.

Acting out in anger is common amongst teens who lack proper coping skills. Additionally, this anger may be aimed at family members or peers. Some teens will show impulsive or reckless behaviors, such as substance use, fighting in school, and sexual promiscuity.

Dealing with a death, whether it’s a parent, sibling, peer or another loved one, is a devastating experience during adolescence due to the amount of change already occurring in their lives.

In fact, 68% of bereaved teens say that losing a family member was the worst thing that ever happened to them.

Additionally, 41% admitted they acted reckless or in other ways that were not good for them physically or mentally.

If ignored, teens will often find other ways to get attention from adults, even if it means doing something harmful to themselves or to others. It is absolutely necessary to pay attention to the adolescent even if they “seem okay.”

It is also important to foster real conversations with them. If they are acting out, set the tone for conversation by showing that you understand what may be causing this, that you know this isn’t who they are, but a symptom, perhaps, of not being able to talk about how they feel. Remind them that adults, too, go through this –– not that that makes it okay.

Instead, work with them to talk daily, even in small bites, about the loved one, about how they are feeling, and share stories about the person or pet who passed.

Stories about how they affected your life or theirs in a positive way, or how a recent event reminded them of you are especially helpful.

They may experience many emotions.

Teens are like adults in that some tend to show their emotions while others struggle to. Many teens find it easier to mask their emotions, which, in some cases, can cause more harm than good in the long run.

If the teen lacks support from peers, grieving the loss of a loved one may become an even more daunting process.

According to the National Poll of Bereaved Children & Teenagers, “52% said that talking to their friends about the death of their family member is hard.”

While some adolescents prefer to not talk about it, others may feel pressured to stay quiet about the loss. Hence, adults should make it known to the teen that talking about the loss is a healthy coping mechanism, especially if they lack the available support amongst their peers.

A state of disbelief and numbness is common amongst teens who experience a death that occurred suddenly. It is impossible to tell how long someone will be here for, and although we know no one can live forever, it is an even more traumatic experience when the death is unexpected.

The poll also states “75% say the pervading emotion they currently feel is sadness” as well as loneliness and anger.

It is also important to note that adolescents will experience different emotions depending on the significance of the loss. For example, a teen might feel depressed and want to sleep all day after losing a close friend to suicide. On the other hand, the teen may feel sad but is still able to carry on with their life after losing a teacher in a car accident.

They may have an existential crisis.

The grieving process may cause teens to question their faith or their understanding of the world. I won’t lie. After losing my Paw, I was very angry at God.

Why would You take away someone who meant so much to my family?

It’s a question I asked for many months after his passing. But I soon learned that it is okay to be angry. It’s okay to wonder about the meaning of life. It’s okay for your faith or knowledge of immortality to be challenged.

As the adult, allow for an open discussion in regards to life.

  • If you are religious, be prepared to answer questions relating to their faith.
  • If you aren’t religious, be prepared to answer philosophical questions such as “What is the meaning of life?”
Some teens may find it difficult to define themselves after losing someone dear to them.

For example, losing a sibling may cause the teen to feel less important. In this scenario, the teen may feel overlooked if they feel alone in their grief. If you’re the parent, including the teen in your grieving process will help them feel secure, heard, and reinforce the family –– even in the wake of such a loss.

They may not be receptive.

Bereaved teens may not be receptive to support from adult family members because of their need to be independent and separate from parents.

Some feel that growing older means growing less vulnerable. Because of the urge to be independent from their parents, teens will often say they are “fine” or “doing okay” when they are not in hopes they can deal with the grief themselves.

If the teen sees their parent struggling (like struggling struggling), the teen may feel worried which can lead to the pressure of “stepping up” to fill in the shoes or role of the adult.

Although it’s absolutely okay to grieve in your own unique way, it is still the adult’s responsibility to take care of the child while also practicing self-care for themselves.

Self-care is important, and many teens are just now learning this.

Through your own acts of self-care, you can show by example how important self-care is at this time. In addition, consider doing self-care activities together.

Adults should let the adolescent know that there will be times in life when they will need to lean on someone else to get by. And that is perfectly okay.

They may withdraw from family.

Teens may find that spending more time with friends or distancing themselves from family is the easiest way to cope with their loss.

While in high school, a friend of mine named Bryce committed suicide.

After a few days of lingering in disbelief, my friends became my support group since they had also endured the loss. I don’t think I talked to my parents about it much even though they made efforts to.

The point is, withdrawing from family and spending more time with friends is a very common thing to do when grieving. In fact, 59% of teens who endured a loss admit that spending time with friends helped them deal with their grief.

Ways to Help Teenagers Cope With Grief

Everyone goes through adolescence, but with everyone being different, it is sometimes difficult to know how to help an adolescent cope. Just like adults, teens are different from one another and tend to cope in their own unique ways. Some may lash out in an attempt to relieve themselves while others may cope by staying quiet or using humor.

As an outgoing but nerdy teen, most of my time was spent playing video games with online friends or hanging out with friends from school. Many of my friends chose to use humor as their outlet. Instead of crying or showing anger, my friends would share memes that related to their situation as a way to cope.

“You have to laugh to allow your heart to move on. Finding humor in places it shouldn’t be helps me.”

My friend told me this almost two and a half years ago, and I will carry it with me through the darkest parts of my life.

You should find out what comforts the teen. If it’s watching the deceased person’s favorite movie over and over again, that movie better be on repeat. There are so many ways to help teenagers cope with a loss; you just have to figure out which one works best.

Strive to keep normalcy in their life.

63% of grieving teens dislike “special treatment” and “just want to be treated like everyone else.” This means teens want to carry on with rituals and daily routines.

If the teen is not your child but is a friend of your child, continue to have them over for dinner or to stay the night.

Carrying on with normal activities will help the teen feel just that— normal. Giving the grieving teen the “special treatment” actually causes more stress for the teen and may cause them to feel like an outsider rather than a part of the in-crowd.

Play follow the leader.

Whether the deceased loved one was a friend or a family member, it is important to accompany the grieving teen through this journey.

Do not direct them through the grieving process. Instead, you should walk through it with them, hand in hand, side by side.

Being a companion is more effective than directing because it lets the teen know that it is okay to feel the way they are feeling. Better yet, it allows the teen to take their time with grieving.

I like to think of the grieving process as a forest — one that you can easily get lost and stuck in without someone there to accompany you.

Thus, you should be the person accompanying them. Do not direct them through the forest; let them take the lead.

Let them spend time with friends.

Many teens use their friends as an outlet. This is incredibly common amongst adolescents because they are in the stage of becoming more dependent from their parents. In addition, spending time with friends will help the bereaved teen carry on with daily routines which can help keep their grades steady and mind at ease.

On the other hand, a more family-oriented teen may enjoy spending time with family rather than going out with friends. I’ll continue to state it — everyone is different.

Some teens enjoy going to support groups with friends. If this is the case, simple acts like taking the group of friends to the support group will show the teen that you are there for them and that you support them.

Be honest but be careful with language.

Asking a teenager, “When are you going to get over this?” is probably not the best question to ask even when the teen isn’t grieving. In fact, avoid this question at all costs with anyone who is grieving. It is rude, and shows that you don’t understand the grieving journey or process at all. Worse, it can really hurt the individual you say it to.

During the grieving process, asking the teen how they are doing or if they would like to talk about the loss is a much better route to take.

Even then — don’t overdo it. Asking the teen if they are okay one million times a day will just end up irritating them. Make it known that you are there for them whenever they would like to talk. Hovering over them and continuing to ask questions will push them away.

In a situation where the death is anticipated, such as a parent being diagnosed with cancer, do not shelter them from the truth; they will find out eventually. Therefore, it is important to be honest with the adolescent rather than to “sugarcoat” the situation.

Be open to ideas they have to honor the loved one.

After losing Bryce, my friends decided to throw a LAN party. If you aren’t a gamer, a LAN party is where friends gather in one location and play video games together on the same network — a local area network.

Bryce was an avid gamer and enjoyed playing on his PlayStation 4, which many of our friends owned as well. The night after the funeral, a stampede of teenagers went to his best friend’s house and played games all night long.

His parents also agreed to play “screamo” at his funeral because “that’s what Bryce would have wanted.”

Do you think his parents enjoyed listening to metal? Probably not. However, they were open to ideas his peers had to honor him.

If your teen wants to leave flowers on the deceased’s grave, buy the flowers. If they want to have breakfast at the deceased’s favorite diner, make it a ritual every year.

Be open and allow the teen to honor the loved one in their own way.

When to get help.

If a teenager asks you for help, you should first give them a hug and tell them you are proud of them. The reason for this is simple — many people, especially teens, do not like admitting they need help.

Support groups are great options for teens who are struggling with the grieving process. These groups show the teen that they are not alone. Additionally, support groups can help reduce distress and many other emotions that follow after losing a loved one.

Substance abuse is a huge sign that professional help is needed. Long-term restlessness or any other long-term changes in sleep, appetite and motivation are also signs that the teen may be struggling with the grieving process.

You should immediately seek professional help for the teen if they talk about suicide or harm themselves. Many adults fall into the they would never do that state of mind, which can make it harder to see what is really going on with the teen.

Conclusion

If there is one thing you should take from this, it’s that there is no formula for grief.

Adolescence is a stage in our lives when we have our first experiences with many emotions and reactions.

Because of this, it may be difficult for some teens to cope with the loss of a loved one. Paying attention to the needs of the bereaved teen and accompanying them through the grieving process are the most important duties you can perform.

Another note — the grieving process never ends.

There will be good days, and there will be bad days. Being there for the teen during the light and the dark will help them understand that life is going to be full of ups and downs and that it is okay to take time for themselves and to care for themselves.

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Written by Madelynn Vickers. Madelynn is a published photographer, writer and a recent public relations graduate from The University of Texas at Austin. In addition to photographing concerts in Austin, Houston, and Dallas, Madelynn enjoys playing video games and spending time with her family. You can find her awake at 2 a.m., writing stories for her newly-formed music publication (and probably wishing she was asleep).

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