The Difficulty of Grief for Teens

Death is hard. Period. Being at teen is hard. Period. But going through grief as a teen is confounding.

The smalltown community I serve was recent devastated with not one, but three teens, who passed away entirely too young, in an auto accident. I was called on, with several other fabulous counselor I work with, to respond in crisis mode to assist with the mounting grief students would experience processing the realism of death.

Hours of being with students of my own and counseling those I’ve never met, until today, brought light to sharing some key elements of teen grief.

The first emotion nearly always seems to be shock; that look of disbelief and turmoil. Floodgates open and emotions flow out so strongly that crashes any amount of sense lingering in their mind: anger, regret, sadness, guilt, blame, confusion.

Normalize the feelings.
Allow that teen to experience that emotion and remind him/her that those emotions are normal. As adults, we’ve learned through many experiences that most of the feelings we have when processes grief are normal. I’m not certain if it is raging hormones, lack of experiences, or the idea of invincible, but teens do not seem to have the same coping skills as adults. Normalize those feelings and assure him/her it is ok to feel and express those feelings. Create a condition in which that is encouraged and welcomed.

“I just wish I had (fill in the blank).”
I have heard this statement so many times. Teens who feel guilty for surviving when a classmate didn’t. Teens who regret not saying something to that person when alive. Survivor’s guilt comes in so many forms, and it can develop from those teens who barely associated with the one who passed. Again, normalize those feelings as a normal reaction in the form of grief. Challenge that teen to create a positive outcome from such devastation; empower him/her to serve using this feeling as a motivation. Suggestions: write a letter to that person, find a way to contribute to something, give blood, or volunteer in some aspect that would make the deceased proud. Be open to that teen sharing good memories of the deceased; validate the teens “I can’t stop thinking about him/her” and remind them it is OK to remember a loved one in a positive way.

Grief is a process.
Share with the teen that grief is an ongoing process, not an isolated event, where one wakes up all better tomorrow. Discuss triggers of emotions; a song, a class, an activity associated with the deceased. Encourage the teen to continue normal activities such as school and class, even if he/she doesn’t want to, even if it is going through the motions. Suggest eating healthy foods, and snacks, getting plenty of rest, and keeping a journal to write down feelings. Remind the teen to spend time with those he/she loves, even if it is difficult, spend time with family, friends, and pets. Laugh. It might sound completely out of the question, but recommend to the teen to laugh when he/she can.

Grief is hard. Your grieving, my grieving all looks and feels differently from someone else. Allow the teen to express feelings, and thoughts (in a safe way) during grief that may not necessarily make sense; because it probably doesn’t even make sense to the teen living it.  This photo reminds me not to put anyone or their feelings into boxes; each person’s owns his/her individual set of emotions.