Each year, thousands of teens 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 identities. And those feelings about death become part of their lives forever.
Caring adults—whether parents, teachers, counselors, friends—can help teens during this time. If adults are open, honest, and loving, experiencing the loss of a loved one can be a chance for young people to learn about the joy and pain that come from caring deeply about others.
Many teenagers are told to “be strong”
Sad to say, many adults who don’t understand their experience discourage teens from sharing their pain.
Grieving teens give all sorts of signs that they are struggling with complex feelings.but are often pressured to act as if they are doing better than they really are.
When a parent dies, many teens are told to “be strong” and “carry on” by the surviving parent. They may not know if they’ll survive on their own, let alone if they’ll be able to support someone else. Obviously, these kinds of conflicts get in the way of grieving work.
Adolescence can be naturally difficult
Teenagers are no longer children, but they are not adults either. With the exception of childhood, no period of development is as full of change as adolescence. Leaving the safety of childhood, the adolescent begins the process of separating from his parents. The death of a parent or sibling, then, can be a particularly devastating experience during this already difficult period.
At the same time that the bereaved adolescent is faced with the death of a loved one, he is also facing psychological, physiological and academic pressures. Although teens may start to look like adults, they will still need consistent support and a lot of compassion, because physical development doesn’t always equal emotional maturity.
Teenagers often experience sudden deaths
The pain that teens experience often comes on suddenly and unexpectedly. A parent may die of a sudden heart attack, a brother or sister may die in a car accident, or a friend may commit suicide. The very nature of these deaths often results in a prolonged and heightened sense of unreality.
Feeling stunned or numb when a loved one dies is often part of an adolescent’s early grieving experience.. This numbness serves a valuable purpose: it gives the emotions time to catch up with what the mind has been told. This feeling helps insulate them from the reality of death until they are better able to tolerate what they don’t want to believe.
Support may be missing
Many people assume that teens have supportive friends and family who will continually be there for them. In reality, this may not be true. The lack of available support is often related to the social expectations placed on the adolescent.
Typically, they are expected to be “grown up” and supportive of other family members, especially a surviving parent and/or younger brothers and sisters. Many teenagers have heard: “Now, you will have to take care of your family”.
When a teenager feels a responsibility to care for the family, he loses the opportunity—or permission—to grieve..
We sometimes assume that teens will find comfort in their peers. But when it comes to death, that might not be true. Many bereaved teens are greeted with indifference by their peers. It seems that unless friends have experienced grief, they project their own feelings of helplessness by completely ignoring the subject of loss.
As we strive to help bereaved teens, we must keep in mind that many of them are in environments that do not provide emotional support. They may turn to friends and family just to be told how to get on with life.
There may be relationship conflicts
As teenagers struggle for independence, relationship conflicts with family members often occur. A normal, though difficult, way in which teenagers become separated from their parents is by going through a period of devaluation.
If a parent dies while the teen is emotionally and physically pushing the parent away, there is often guilt and unfinished conversations. While the need to create distance is normal, we can easily see how this complicates the grieving experience.
We know that most teens have a difficult time with their parents and siblings. Conflicts stem from the normal process of forming a separate family identity. The death, combined with the turmoil in relationships between parents and teenage siblings, can create a real need to talk about what their relationship with the person who died was like.
Signs a Teen Might Need Extra Help
There are many reasons why healthy grief can be especially difficult for teenagers. Some bereaved teens may even behave in inappropriate or frightening ways. Be on the lookout 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
- risky behaviors, such as drug and alcohol abuse, fighting, and sexual experimentation
- denying the pain while acting overly strong or mature
To help a teen who is having a particularly difficult time with their loss, explore the full spectrum of support networks. School counselors, faith groups, and therapists are suitable resources for some young people, while others may just need a little more time and attention from caring adults.
What is important is that you help the bereaved teen find safe and nurturing emotional outlets in this difficult time..
The role of a caring adult
How adults respond when a loved one dies has a major effect on how teenagers react to death.. Adults sometimes don’t want to talk about death, assuming that by doing so young people will be spared some of the pain and sadness. However, the reality is very simple: teenagers suffer anyway.
Teenagers often need caring adults to reassure them that it’s okay to be sad and feel a myriad of emotions when someone they love dies. They also usually need help understanding that the pain they feel now won’t last forever. When ignored, teens can suffer more from feeling isolated than from death itself. Even worse, they feel alone in their pain.
Understand the importance of loss
Remember that the death of a loved one is a devastating experience for a teenager. As a result of this death, the teenager’s life is under reconstruction. Consider the meaning of the loss and be kind and compassionate in all your relief efforts.
Grief is complex. It will vary from teenager to teenager. Caring adults need to communicate to children that this feeling is not something to be ashamed of or hide. Rather, grief is a natural expression of love for the person who has died.
For caring adults, the challenge is clear: teens don’t choose between grieving and not grieving; adults, on the other hand, have a choice—whether or not to help teenagers 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.
It is important to recognize that helping a grieving teen will not be an easy task. You may have to give more attention, time, and love than you ever thought possible. But that effort will be worth it.
By “walking with” a grieving teen, you are giving one of life’s most precious gifts – yourself.
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