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Teen Grief: 8 ways to support teenagers through bereavement

A teenager in a dark space

Photo by Dmitry Ratushny on Unsplash

Adolescence can be a difficult transition at the best of times, so sometimes the last people to open up about teen grief are the bereaved youngsters themselves.

Around one in 20 children will endure the devastating loss of a parent, before they graduate high school. That’s according to the Highmark Caring Place, the bereavement center behind Children’s Grief Awareness Day.

Coping with teen grief at the same time that they are experiencing stress, change and creating their adult identity, can be an overwhelming emotional journey. They may be reluctant to open up, or give vent to their feelings in ways that are challenging or unfamiliar.

“Loss and grief separates teenagers from their peers at a time when they’re desperate to fit in,” says Jill FitzGerald, founder of the Grief Resource Centre, Richmond, VA.

“We need to support them – at home, at school, and in everyday life.”

Here, we look at eight ways to help, if you are supporting a teenager through grief.

1. Reach out for support

If a surviving parent is not coping well with their own grief, this may add to a grieving teen’s anxieties or feelings of responsibility. Seek grief counseling that’s age appropriate for each member of the family. Non-profit organization The Dougy Center lists over 500 support groups and programs helping children, teenagers and families.

2. Create a network of supportive adults

“If the deceased was their same gender parent, think about other male/female adults who could have a positive influence and support the young person in spending one-one-time with them,” suggest Litsa Williams and Eleanor Haley, the founders of bereavement support forum What’s Your Grief

3. Consider a choice of coping strategies and tools

Alternative bereavement therapies such as journal-writing, art therapy, music or drama may help them express feelings they are finding it difficult to convey.

“Give teens the opportunity to express their emotions when and how they like,” advise Williams and Haley.

“Don’t make them feel guilty for acting as though nothing is wrong, this doesn’t mean they don’t care. If they’re open to your assistance, help them find ways to grieve they’re comfortable with.”

4. Be available, patient and accessible

Some grieving teens may need to talk a good deal about the person who has died. For others, it may be hard to open up to a family member they’re close to.

Summer grief camps are safe space where teenagers can open up to peers, counselors without feeling they have to ‘explain’. They can be a healing place for sharing and expressing difficult emotions.

5. Validate difficult emotions

Anger, disbelief, guilt and depression are among the many difficult emotions we can experience through the grieving process. It’s important for teenagers to feel reassured that these overwhelming emotions are okay.

“Be accepting of how a teen feels and validate that emotional experience, even if it may be different than your own,” says mental health clinician Jonah Green.

6. Support healthy choices

Try and maintain a healthy routine where eating and sleeping are concerned. Some teenagers may drawn to alcohol, stimulants or high-risk activities as a way of numbing the pain of grief and loss. Be aware and support kids by encouraging healthy habits and routines.

7. Don’t expect teen grief to have an ‘end’ date

Grief can be a long journey that ebbs and flows, and can be be triggered by life events. Adults can best assist grieving teenagers by acting as a companion and listener on their grieving journey.

8. Create continuing bonds

Encourage teenagers to keep the memory of the parent who has died alive. This could include creating an online memorial, photo displays or collage, visiting favorite places or listening to music they enjoyed together. Find ways of continuing bonds and including the memory of the parent who has died on special days and significant anniversaries.