Helping Teenagers Cope with Grief
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”
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
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
Support May Be Lacking
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
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
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
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
Understanding the Importance of the Loss
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 and development.
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