Being a teenager is an emotional and physical time in life. Teens are experiencing physical, emotional, and hormonal changes that aren’t always comfortable or easy to understand. They feel life in a very intense way during adolescence.
Unfortunately, teenagers are often subjected to sudden and unexpected deaths - losing a classmate to suicide or drug overdose, loss of a parent to an illness - which makes the very nature of their grieving complicated.
Teenagers grieve very deeply but often work hard to hide their feelings because they fear the vulnerability that comes with expression of feelings. Teenagers may act as though they are fine while they are shattered internally.
Teens may often experience a greater sense of unreality and numbness when confronted by these sudden deaths. This serves the purpose of allowing their minds to catch up with what has happened. It may also insulate them from death until they are better able to tolerate the reality of the loss.
Why Death Is Difficult For Teenagers:
The teenage years are notoriously difficult as a teenager struggles between the role of a child and that of an adult. Teens often lack the emotional maturity adults have to handle death even though they outwardly appear to be adults.
Many people incorrectly assume that teenagers have a built-in support system to provide them with support through the grieving process. Families may tell a teen to "be strong for their younger siblings" which further complicates grief. Peers may treat grief with indifference unless they, too, have experienced a significant loss.
Well-meaning adults who do not remember what the teenage years are like may encourage a teen to "be strong." That statement denies the teen any ability to properly address conflicting feelings about the death.
If the death of a parent occurred during a conflicted part of a teen's life, rectifying the guilt associated with leaving such business unfinished may make grieving terribly difficult for a teen.
Signs A Grieving Teen May Be Struggling And May Need A Professional:
- Academic failure and/or indifference to school
- Extreme anger expressed in inappropriate ways. Unspoken anger may turn into depression.
- Death Wish - any talk of suicide or dying should be taken seriously
- Deterioration of once-close relationships with friends and family
- Symptoms of depression
- Extreme behavior changes
- Engaging in risk-taking behaviors like substance abuse or sexual experimentation
- Denying that they are struggling
How To Help A Teenager Cope With Death:
Understand that grief is as unique as the person experiencing it. Each person grieves in their own way and in their own time.
Allow the teenager to grieve as long as they need, even if it hurts you to watch.
Try to reassure the teenager that the pain of loss will lessen somewhat with time.
An adult helping a teenager grieve must gain a teen's trust by being thoughtful, non-judgmental listeners. Reassure the teenager that you want to hear how they are feeling, their thoughts and views, and do so without criticizing or judgement.
Teenagers may not understand all of the complex emotions that a death brings to the surface. Sometimes, all that they need is the assurance that it is okay to feel however they feel - their feelings are entirely normal.
Teenagers experiencing a loss may feel shattered so their lives may need reconstruction. Remember to be caring and compassionate while dealing with even the most challenging teenage loss situations.
While a teen does not choose to grieve, the choice to help a teenager through grief is entirely up to us.
Peer support groups may be the best ways for teens to heal. In a support group, a teenager can connect with other teenagers who have experienced a loss similar to their own.
Ways To Help A Teenager Remember A Lost Loved One:
- Arranging a trip to the cemetery
- Allow the teenager to attend and help plan the funeral
- Writing down a memory or drawing on a mural
- Constructing a memory book
- Writing an essay, poem, song
- Launching a balloon after writing messages to the person that has died
Resources for Teens About Dealing With A Death:
Kids Help Phone - website devoted to teenagers coping with a loss or death. Many sections about grief and grieving.
The National Alliance For Grieving Children provides a searchable database to find bereavement support in your area.
Compassionate Friends is a website devoted to finding healing after the death of a child. It provides links to online support groups and resources.