Helping a teen who is grieving

Teenageers are not supposed to die. Afterwards, it's not just families that grieve...teens do, too.

How do adolescents handle their grief? In my experience, their first reaction is shock and feeling of unreality. It is a normal part of adolescent development for teenagers to feel invincible — it is part of what is known as the "personal fable” — and the death of a peer shatters this belief and makes them feel strange. They read the Facebook posts and repeat what they have heard over and over. They want to hear as many details of the event as possible, perhaps so that they can begin to accept the event as real.

How can we help? My advice:
Reassure them that there is no right or wrong way to grieve
… and allow them to grieve in a judgment-free zone.

Not all teens look or feel the same way when they grieve. Grieving may include a variety of emotions, thoughts, and physical feelings that make the teenager feel out of control, scared, and isolated. How they feel may change from day to day and even from hour to hour. Grief is an ongoing process that doesn’t have a “stop date.”  With time, it changes in character and intensity such that the current hurt becomes less caustic.

Understand that teens may react as strongly to the death of a peer as to the death of a parent, sibling or grandparent…and try not to feel as though this is a rejection of family. 

During adolescent development, teenagers are becoming more independent from their parents and the focus shifts to their friends, boyfriends and girlfriends. When they lose a friend, they suddenly lose an individual who was front and center in their life.

Be patient, give support, avoid criticism…and validate that they are experiencing a very difficult period in their lives.

Teens already tend to be self-critical; they may feel that they’re crying too much or that they’re not crying enough, or they may feel that they should be acting strong even though they may feel weak and vulnerable. While some teens may look physically mature, they may be much younger in their emotional development. As a result, they may feel very needy during the grieving process, and then feel guilty for their neediness. As adults, we support our teens best by listening rather than lecturing.

Try to limit their access to the recurring news about the tragedy…because overexposure can cause increased anxiety and depression.

Be on the lookout for symptoms of chronic depression, sleeping and academic difficulties, and other complications of the grieving process. Teenagers may need outside help from school counselors, therapists, and doctors.

Finally, respect the fact that all teenagers have the right to grieve. This Bill of Rights of Grieving Teens was written by teens from The Dougy Center in Portland, Oregon:

“A grieving teen has the right …
… to know the truth about the death, the deceased, and the circumstances.
… to have questions answered honestly.
… to be heard with dignity and respect.
… to be silent and not tell you her/his grief emotions and thoughts.
… to not agree with your perceptions and conclusions.
… to see the person who died and the place of the death.
… to grieve any way she/he wants without hurting self or others.
… to feel all the feelings and to think all the thoughts of his/her own unique grief.
… to not have to follow the “Stages of Grief” as outlined in a high school health book.
… to grieve in one’s own unique, individual way without censorship.
… to be angry at death, at the person who died, at God, at self, and at others.
… to have his/her own theological and philosophical beliefs about life and death.
… to be involved in the decisions about the rituals related to the death.
… to not be taken advantage of in this vulnerable mourning condition and circumstances.
… to have guilt about how he/she could have intervened to stop the death.”

More information on the grieving process in teens can be found at Hospice Net, a nonprofit organization that offers information and support to patients and families facing life-threatening illnesses.

Have a question for the Healthy Kids panel? Ask it here. Read more from the Healthy Kids blog »