Helping Teenagers Cope with Grief :|
Article by Dr. Alan Wolfelt, Ph.D.
Each year thousands of teenagers experience the death of someone they love.
When a parent, sibling, friend or relative dies, teens feel the overwhelming
loss of someone who helped shape their fragile self-identities. And these
feelings about the death become a part of their lives forever.
Caring adults, whether parents, teachers, counselors or friends, can help
teens during this time. If adults are open, honest and loving, experiencing the
loss of someone loved can be a chance for young people to learn about both the
joy and pain that comes from caring deeply for others.
Many Teens Are Told To “Be Strong”
Sad to say, many adults who lack understanding of their experience discourage
teens from sharing their grief. Bereaved teens give out all kinds of signs that
they are struggling with complex feelings, yet are often pressured to act as
they are doing better than they really are.
When a parent dies, many teens are told to “be strong” and “carry on” for the
surviving parent. They may not know if they will survive themselves let alone be
able to support someone else. Obviously, these kinds of conflicts hinder the
“work of mourning”.
Teen Years Can Be Naturally Difficult
Teens are no longer children, yet neither are they adults. With the exception of
infancy, no developmental period is so filled with change as adolescence.
Leaving the security of childhood, the adolescent begins the process of
separation from parents. The death of a parent or sibling, then, can be a
particularly devastating experience during this already difficult period.
At the same time the bereaved teen is confronted by the death of someone
loved, he or she also faces psychological, physiological and academic pressures.
While teens may begin to look like “men” or “women”, they will still need
consistent and compassionate support as they do the work of mourning, because
physical development does not always equal emotional maturity.
Teens Often Experience Sudden Deaths
The grief that teens experience often comes suddenly and unexpectedly. A parent
may die of a sudden heart attack, a brother or sister may be killed in an auto
accident, or a friend may commit suicide. The very nature of these deaths often
results in a prolonged and heightened sense of unreality.
Support May Be Lacking
Many people assume that adolescents have supportive friends and family who will
be continually available to them. In reality, this may not be true at all. The
lack of available support often relates to the social expectations placed on the
They are usually expected to be “grown up” and support other members of the
family, particularly a surviving parent and/or younger brothers and sisters.
Many teens have been told, “now, you will have to take care of your family.”
When an adolescent feels a responsibility to “care for the family”, he or she
does not have the opportunity—or the permission to mourn.
Sometimes we assume that teenagers will find comfort from their peers. But
when it comes to death, this may not be true. It seems that unless friends have
experienced grief themselves, they project their own feelings of helplessness by
ignoring the subject of loss entirely.
Relationship Conflicts May Exist
As teens strive for their independence, relationship conflicts with family
members often occur. A normal, though trying way in which teens separate from
their parents is by going through a period of devaluation.
If a parent dies while the adolescent is emotionally and physically pushing
the parent away, there is often a sense of guilt and “unfinished business”.
While the need to create distance is normal we can easily see how this
complicates the experience of mourning.
Signs a Teen May Need Extra Help
As we have discussed, there are many reasons why healthy grieving can be
especially difficult for teenagers. Some grieving teens may even behave in ways
that seem inappropriate or frightening. Be on the watch for:
- symptoms of chronic depression, sleeping difficulties, restlessness and
low self esteem
- academic failure or indifference to school-related activities
- deterioration of relationships with family and friends
- risk-taking behaviors such as drug and alcohol abuse, fighting, and
- denying pain while at the same time acting overly strong or mature.
To help a teen who is having a particularly hard time with his or her loss,
explore the full spectrum of helping services in your community. School
counselors, church groups and private therapists are appropriates resources for
some young people, while others may just need a little more time and attention
from caring adults like you. The important thing is that you help the grieving
teen find safe and nurturing emotional outlets at this difficult time.
Caring Adult’s Role
How adults respond when someone loved dies has a major effect on the way teens
react to the death. Sometimes adults don’t want to talk about the death,
assuming that by doing so, young people will be spared some of the pain and
sadness. However, the reality is very simple: teens grieve anyway.
Teens often need caring adults to confirm that it’s all right to be sad and
to feel a multitude of emotions when someone they love dies. They also usually
need help understanding that the hurt they feel now won’t last forever. When
ignored, teens may suffer more from feeling isolated than from the actual death
itself. Worse yet, they feel all alone in their grief.
Be Aware of Support Groups
Peer support groups are one of the best ways to help bereaved teens heal. They
are allowed and encouraged to tell their stories as much, and as often, as they
like. In this setting most will be willing to acknowledge that death has
resulted in their life being forever changed. You may be able to help teens find
such a group. This practical effort on your part will be appreciated.
Understanding the Importance of the Loss
Remember that the death of someone loved is a shattering experience for an
adolescent. As a result of this death, the teen’s life is under reconstruction.
Consider the significance of the loss and be gentle and compassionate in all of
your helping efforts.
Grief is complex. It will vary from teen to teen. Caring adults need to
communicate to children that this feeling is not one to be ashamed of or hide.
Instead, grief is a natural expression of love for the person who died.
For caring adults, the challenge is clear: teenagers do not choose between
grieving and not grieving; adults, on the other hand, do have a choice—to help
or not to help teens cope with grief.
With love and understanding, adults can support teens through this vulnerable
time and help make the experience a valuable part of a teen’s personal growth