Helping a teen through the grief process is not a new concept, but one that is often overlooked. There are many wonderful books for grief targeted towards adults. However, adolescent grief is unique and important to learn about.
I was 17 years old when my paternal grandmother passed away. She had been sick for many years, but still lived a long and loved life. My family followed the common mid-western protocol of grieving publicly through a formal funeral service and visitation. Later there was a funeral procession, a burial ceremony, and a potluck at the church. As teens, my sisters and I followed along with the rituals without question. We weren’t very experienced in these matters.
As I attended the visitation, sandwiched between my oldest sister and a cousin of mine, I cried. Once I started, I couldn’t stop. I looked over, and saw my sister take off her glasses, placing them on her lap as she picked up a large wad of Kleenex, holding it to her face. Next, my cousin did the same. The three of us sat there, together, crying for quite some time. It felt safe to cry with the people we loved. We cried throughout the day. Over months and years, the acceptance of the loss of our grandmother became stronger, and we settled into life without her daily presence.
Recently, my immediate family grieved the loss of two close family members. It seems like it is one thing to read about grief, or even feel it ourselves. But, with two children (one of whom is a teen) I can verify that supporting a teenager through grief is a unique experience.
With adolescent grief, there are some important things to know:
Adolescents are going through a period of independence, which applies to grief, as well as other aspects of their lives.
As a result of this independence, they may be overlooked. Because they tend to withdraw from parents, they may be more likely to seek support from friends, teachers, or other people. The child who held your hand and wanted to sneak into your bed at night could now be the teen who grunts when you ask how his day is.
Even so, it will be important to have a private check-in with him to see how your teen is doing. It may be helpful to get out of the house, and go for a drive or engage in a 1:1 activity in order to open up communication. If your adolescent is open to it, about how he is doing, what he is feeling, and what he thinks about the events that he has experienced. You may find yourself surprised when your son or daughter says something like, “Yeah, I’m still really sad, and school feels really hard.”
You may find yourself surprised that it is hard to check in with your teen, particularly if you are grieving too. So, put it on your planner, make yourself a note, or ask your spouse for assistance. But remember your teen is likely grieving as much as everyone else, even if it doesn’t look like it.
Many adolescents want to look normal, or like everyone else, even in times of grief.
Sadly, that means it may be hard for them to disclose their feelings. Not just to family, but to their friends too. Or they may text their friends about the death, but not about their feelings. Sometimes, they will seek help online, through support forums or through social media that are more anonymous, like Twitter, Reddit, etc. But, this also requires good communication and supervision.
Don’t assume that because they are a teen, that your adolescent is old enough to “handle it.” Grief impacts all ages, and it is not about maturity.
Adolescent grief can be hidden by a number of other problems like substance abuse, rule-breaking, school problems, sleep disturbance, even eating disorders. It may not be obviously apparent that they are suffering from loss. But it’s there. In fact, due to rapid physical and emotional growth, teens may be even more prone towards strong feelings of sadness and anger than adult counterparts. No age is immune from feeling sadness, anger, guilt or despair following a loss. Family members need each other during this time.
Adolescents who experience death often do so suddenly, like in the case of motor vehicle accidents, homicides, or suicides.
Grief under these circumstances can be more difficult and traumatic to process. Oftentimes, young people have strong feelings of justice and fairness. They may not be able to make sense or understand the shock and loss of another young person. They may blame themselves, or someone else, for the death, even if they are not related. It will be important to offer your teen candid, respectful communication about the circumstances of the deceased, providing support, comfort, and absolution of guilt whenever possible.
Encourage your teen to avoid extra stress in their lives for awhile.
While getting back in the routine can be helpful (see below), adolescents who are grieving may struggle returning to their normal busy lives. They may appear less energetic, less motivated, more tired, and more absent-minded. It is okay to let your child’s school or teachers know and ask for help. It may be helpful to reduce extra activities, projects, or duties. Your teen may need a reduced homework load for a few weeks. Don’t feel shy about advocating for your teen if he needs it. Grief is hard work many people more time and space to recover. Similarly, if your teen is employed, a short break from a part-time job may also be helpful.
At the same time, honor your family’s routine.
Keep in the rhythm of going to school, exercising, sleeping regular schedules, and eating. It can be hard at first, and you may need to decrease the intensity. You may need to encourage small meals, or a few shortened days. But keeping in a familiar routine will help your family feel better sooner. If possible gentle exercise or calming activities before bed may be helpful. You may also need to follow healthier sleep hygiene to get everyone on track.
Find a way to spend time with your teen.
Take time to spend time doing some meaningful things surrounding grief. For example, talk to your teen about ways to create something memorable about the person they lost, like a memory book, a personal webpage, or some other way to help honor their memory. You could create play-lists of the person’s favorite music, plant a tree or small garden, or take a trip to the cemetery or a special place your teen shared with the person.
Also, spend time with your son or daughter doing normal teen things. Go to a movie they like, take them out for coffee or fast food, or watch a movie with them at home. Just being near them is helpful. If your child is not open to these things, remind him often that you are there for him, and will help anyway that you can.