Like all of us, teens sometimes experience the deaths of loved ones. Sadly, suicide, risky behaviors and teen violence leave adolescents especially vulnerable to losing friends and acquaintances to death. Parents and caregivers often wonder how to help teens grieve and heal from this kind of loss.
Thinking About and Understanding Death
Unlike younger children, teens usually grasp the finality of death. Adolescence is a time when teens are figuring out what they think about life, spirituality, and their purpose in the world. Thinking about death, sometimes to the point of “dwelling” on it, is a common way that teens work out their views about these big questions. Themes of death in music, artwork, poetry, books, and clothes may be a sign that your teen is wrestling with these issues or is trying to fit into a social group. However, exaggerated interest in death can also be an indication of depression. Talk with your teen if he or she seems overly drawn to these things, but find out more before you react.
Grief is a natural process that happens on its own timeline. People who are grieving often experience shock or numbness, intense sadness, anger and/or fatigue. These feelings can happen at different times for different people, and not everyone experiences all of them. Above all, grief is a highly personal reaction to a universal experience. People in the most intense stages of grieving after a death need love, patience and support. They also need permission to feel whatever they feel. Teens should be encouraged, but not pushed, to participate in all the adult rituals surrounding a death, including attending viewings and visiting hours, funerals or memorials, sitting Shivah or other religious or family traditions. The first days and weeks after a death can be exhausting for everyone involved, so teens and caregivers should be particularly careful to allow for time to stop and rest. Caregivers may need a break from the job of caring for their teen! It’s OK to ask for help and extra support.
When someone dies, a teen may react in lots of different ways. Like other life events, death may provoke very strong feeling in teens: confusion, anger or intense sadness. These feelings can swing very quickly and leave teens and adults feeling tired and confused. Teens who do not want to display their feelings may choose to isolate themselves from adults, finding comfort from peers. Other teens may become clinging and more childlike for a while. Some teens try to just keep everything “normal” and go about their lives as if nothing has happened. Any of these response are understandable and OK.
Teens also wrestle with the question “Who am I?” after someone has died. Figuring out his or her role in a family, with friends, and in the world is always a big part of adolescence. A teen’s identity, especially in relation to the person who has died, gets called into question after a death. “Am I still my Dad’s daughter if he’s not around anymore?” “Will I be disloyal to my dead friend if I make new friends?” are the kind of things teens work to understand about their changed world after a death.
Behaviors and Signs of Grief
Grieving teens may not talk about their feelings, but they might do lots of crying, withdraw, or throw themselves into lots of activity. Teens may act out with defiance, irritability, poor grades or fights, risk-taking or experimentation with drugs and alcohol.
It’s important to talk about these behaviors, and remind your teen that, while he or she always has your love and support, the same rules about negative behavior still apply. You can be understanding and still set appropriate limits. Teens may complain, but they often secretly crave the reassurance that some things haven’t changed and someone (you) is still in charge. As we mentioned above, if troubling feelings or behavior persist a long time or seem to take over your teen’s life, talk it over and consider checking in with a professional.
When someone a child loves dies, that child copes with the event in age-specific ways. He or she may have a very limited understanding of what has happened. As the child matures, that event will be re-processed with new, more mature understanding. That’s why a teen will sometimes re-grieve a loss that happened much earlier. If a teen becomes sad or angry about a death that occurred years ago, he or she needs the same love and support that they might need for a death that occurred yesterday.
Grief and Trauma
Sometimes a loss can be made more complicated, if the teen has also experienced trauma related to the death. Seeing someone die unexpectedly, losing someone to violence or suicide, or feeling somehow responsible for the death can lead to post-trauma stress reactions. These reactions can cause a lot of distress for your teen, and slow the grieving and healing process. Some symptoms of traumatic stress include nightmares, flashbacks, irritability and severe mood swings, long periods of feeling “numbed out” or detached from reality, intense feelings of guilt, fear or anxiety. If you feel you teen may be dealing with the aftereffects of trauma, contact a mental health professional right away for an assessment and treatment.
Ways to Support Your Grieving Teen
Like adults, teens need to be reassured that there is no “right” way to grieve and that any feelings are OK, including feeling angry at the person who died, or not always feeling sad. Adults need to share the fact that they, too, are working hard to figure out how to deal with the death and sometimes feel overwhelmed or confused. Teens should not be pressured to talk, but should be reminded that they can talk whenever they need to. Above all, they need to be reassured that they are loved, and that someone will always be there to support and help care for them.
Grief can make people feel very alone. Make sure your teen knows that love and support is available.