Supporting adolescents in grief - 12 to 18 years
I had the privilege of supporting a small group of young teenagers who were encountering a tragic loss. Their friend was in critical condition after an accident, and he wasn't expected to survive. The group was busy making art and writing notes to their friend, while eating junk food, telling jokes and checking their phones. They had gathered together to give the art and notes to their friend's family, and to say goodbye to their friend. At first, I was struck by the jovial, slumber-party-like atmosphere. Did they understand the magnitude of what was happening? Were they emotionally "ready" to say goodbye? Did they realize that this was the end?
I used the clearest language that I could think of to explain the death, and the plan to say goodbye. There was a long solemn pause among the group, some tears, hugging, and hands covering faces. I felt relieved by this show of grief. This was the grief response I was expecting, and I was assured that they understood what was happening.
A few minutes later, the group broke into laughter, and went back to sharing funny stories and texting back and forth. The art projects and the snacking resumed. "I don't think he will actually die" said one of the teens, "medical advancement can do some amazing things, and there could totally be a miracle that could save him." A couple of others agreed. Again, I panicked. Maybe they didn't get it, maybe I didn't explain it right. As I sat in my discomfort, I watched as the room danced between the type of grief that I recognized - the crying, hugging, and sharing of memories, and the grief I did not recognize yet - the laughing, joking, and carrying on of normal teenage behaviour. Back and forth it went, waves of deep sadness, followed by playful teenaged banter, all in a matter of minutes.
I recognized my own expectations of what their grief should look like, and began to relax into knowing that this was teenage grief. Experiencing waves of overwhelming and conflicting emotions, processing difficult information in short bursts, and coping together with peers, with stories, memories, and their regular social behaviour.
How teenagers understand death
Developmentally, teens are able to understand that death is permanent, as well as abstract concepts, and may begin to ponder questions such as the meaning of life and what happens after death. They see themselves as unique individuals with unique identities, separate from their families, and as a result, begin to rely on peers and others outside of their families for support. Unfortunately, peers may not be able to support them in the ways that they need them to, because of their own discomfort or inexperience with grief. Support groups or creating connections with other teens who have experienced grief could be helpful.
Common grief responses
There is no right way to grieve and there is a wide range of responses typical to how teenagers might respond to grief and loss. Sometimes as adults we have a fear of saying the wrong thing and so we neglect to properly validate their feelings. As a result, they may feel misunderstood or that no one can know or understand their feelings. They may feel isolated in their grief or because of their loss, at a time in their lives when they don't want to feel different or stand out. They may have intense emotional reactions at times, and appear withdrawn and irritable at others. Teenagers may also have lots of worries about their own and others' health and safety, and they may feel guilty about their feelings or reactions to the death. If the loss is in their immediate family, they may feel confused about their role within their family or about shifts in responsibilities. It is common for teenagers to experience an inability to concentrate, difficulty sleeping, changes in eating habits, and may even have thoughts of self harm.
How to support teens who are grieving
Teens may say that they don’t want to talk about death and their feelings, or act as if they are indifferent to the loss of a loved one. As supportive adults in a teenager’s life, we may feel at a loss, especially when they do not want to talk to us or share their feelings with us. It is important that we are patient and respectful of the privacy they may need. What we can do is provide a safe and non-judgmental environment for them to express themselves, as well as provide creative and physical outlets for their grief. Examples of this may include journaling, sketching, or listening to music. Some teenagers find attending a grief support group helpful in order to connect with peers who have also experienced a loss. Try to maintain consistent routines, be honest, and have clear conversations with teens to answer their questions and clarify roles and responsibilities. Asking open ended questions and listening and validating their responses in a non judgmental way will go a long way in helping to build trust and connection. If you are concerned about a teenager's ability to cope with the loss in their life, or are concerned about the possibility of self harm, contact a health care professional in order to connect them with professional support.
With Love Grief Support Gift Boxes
We have designed our gifts for youth to reflect their need for emotional expression, and privacy. Each of the boxes includes the book Weird is Normal: When Teenagers Grieve by Jenny Lee Wheeler, which is an excellent resource for young people as well as their parents, for understanding the unique experience of teenage grief. The Rest & Reflect box includes a journal and pen for recording thoughts and feelings, and is accompanied by a list of journal writing prompts. This box also includes an essential oil roller which has been specially formulated for supporting grief. The Sketch & Express box includes a sketchbook, coloured pencils and sketch pens, for the youth who prefers to express themselves with images. Both boxes include a special "worry" or "pocket" stone that supports grounding and regulation during difficult times.
References and Resources
Canadian Virtual Hospice
The Dougy Center
National Alliance for Grieving Children
Children and Youth Grief Network
What's Your Grief
Online and in-person supports for teens
Upopolis "Grief Island"
Lumara Society - bereavement support groups, camps, counselling, and education
Teenage Grief Sucks
for teens who have lost a parent to find connection through shared experiences.
Supporting Children and Families Impacted by Grief or Addiction
Books to support teens
If Only by Carole Geithner
Deconstruction/Reconstruction: A grief journal for teens by The Dougy Center
Fire in My Heart, Ice in My Veins: A Journal for Teenagers Experiencing a Loss by Enid Samuel Traisman
Healing Your Grieving Heart for Teens: 100 Practical Ideas by Alan D. Wolfelt
The Healing Your Grieving Heart Journal for Teens by Alan D Wolfelt PhD
Finding Your Own Way to Grieve: A Creative Activity Workbook for Kids and Teens on the Autism Spectrum by Karla Helbert
The Goodbye Diaries by Marisa Bardach Ramel and Sally Bardach
Wreck this Journal by Keri Smith