Supporting grieving adolescents
1. Grief is not always visible.
Grief comprises the many thoughts and feelings experienced because of loss, while mourning is the outward expression of grief. As adolescents are in the process of becoming more independent of their parents and other central figures in their lives, they can feel reluctant to show signs of mourning as it reinforces a sense of dependence and vulnerability. Even so, all adolescents grieve when someone they love dies.
Strategy – Be available
It is when we are truly listened to that we feel most understood. Provide adolescents an accepting, open, communicative environment in which to grieve. Convey to them that it is okay to feel the emotions that they feel, and that you will be there for them if they need to talk.
2. Don’t try to ‘fix’ the pain associated with the grief.
It’s difficult to bear witness to the pain of children and young people. This means that as bystanders, we may want to take away or fix the pain of those who are grieving. This can manifest itself by avoiding talking about the loss or the person who has died, modifying information about their death, or trying to accelerate the adolescent through their grief. While these responses may ease the discomfort of the carer, they can result in the adolescent concealing their grief, withdrawing from loved ones, or expressing their feelings in destructive ways.
Strategy – Talk about the loss
Invite the adolescent to talk about their loss and / or the person who has died. Should the adolescent not want to talk, respect their choice to do so. Ask specific questions and answer their questions honestly and clearly. Don’t tell half-truths, and if you don’t know the answer to something, say so. Share your memories, thoughts, and beliefs with the adolescent without pressuring them to adopt your perspective.
3. Understand that grief does not proceed in orderly, predictable stages.
Young people grieve in doses. That is, they often break grief up into bearable amounts and these can manifest in intense outbursts. It’s likely that they will experience a multitude of emotions that may come and go in waves. While they can seem out of character and unpredictable, this is a common response to grief. These responses can be heightened at milestones in the person’s life when they may feel the absence of the person more acutely.
Strategy – Allow for adjustment, but be aware of the danger signs
Because grief is not linear or forward moving, carers need to understand the range of emotions that can surface for the grieving adolescent. Allow teenagers some leeway as they adjust to their loss, while providing a secure, consistent environment. Where able, maintain routines. Be aware of danger signs such as chronic depression, violence, drug and alcohol abuse, or dramatic changes in personality and seek professional support when necessary.
4. Consider the nature and centrality of the loss.
The more sudden or unexpected the nature of the death, the more likely the adolescent is to mourn in doses, holding back the pain at first. The more significant or central the role the person had in their life, the deeper the loss and mourning will be.
Strategy – Do things together
Set aside your thoughts and feelings while you try to consider the young person’s experience of the world through their eyes. Think about the nature of the loss, and closeness of the relationship the adolescent shared with their person whom they are grieving. Acknowledge the depth of their loss. Set aside your time, attention, and availability for the adolescent.
5. Model healthy grief.
Like all of us, adolescents learn from the behaviour they sense and observe. Therefore, they pick up on implicit and explicit messages about how to grieve from those around them. How those around them grieve can often be an indicative of how they feel they should behave, or are expected to behave.
Strategy – Mourn together
Be aware of the messages adolescents may be receiving from those around them about how to grieve. The more adolescents observe healthy communication and the appropriate expression of the many feelings associated with loss; the more likely adolescents will understand and accept the breadth of emotions they may feel. Educate others about the needs of grieving adolescents but don’t teach young people how to grieve; let the young person show you how they grieve.