Guidelines for Helping Grieving Teens
By Tom McLeod
Perhaps the most important thing an adult caregiver can do for grieving teens is to be available to them. Availability means being approachable, non-judgmental, caring and appropriate. Letting them know you are there to talk at any time and letting them know you will hear what they are saying, no matter what it is, will make all the difference in your ability to be a helpful presence for teens.
Do not assume they will come to you to talk. You will need to ask them if they want to talk about anything. If they ask, “What do you want to talk about?” tell them. Be open and address your own feelings or difficulties regarding your loved one’s death. Be honest. Avoid euphemisms such as “passed on” or “left us.” Use the deceased person’s name or family role (mother, grandmother, etc.).
It’s also OK to say, “I don’t know” if they ask you a difficult question. Don’t pretend to understand something that you don’t. Your teen likely will learn that you don’t, if he or she doesn’t pick up on it immediately.
Then be open to just listening. Ask leading questions that invite your teenager to talk to you. Review the conversation, asking your teenager to summarize what you discussed. This provides opportunities to clarify whether there are misconceptions or misunderstandings. If you are unable to talk about death with your teen, find someone else who feels comfortable talking about it, such as another relative, another bereaved teen or a professional, such as a social worker, minister or school counselor.
Share your own thoughts, concerns and feelings. Acceptable expressions of grief will be demonstrated by your example. Give your teens permission to grieve by allowing them to see you grieve. Telling stories, reading and writing poetry, and journaling are useful means of expressing one’s grief. These things can be shared with others—or not.
Share and discuss religious beliefs with your teen. If your teen has spiritual questions you can’t answer, admit it and seek the assistance of your faith professional (minister, priest, rabbi, imam). Try not to react negatively if your teen is expressing faith or beliefs that are different from the accepted family practice. Older teens especially will be developing their own faith practices to prepare for future losses. This may require some religious “experimentation” on the older teen’s part. Refer him or her to your local faith professional.
Being an adult companion to a bereaved teen, especially if you are a parental figure, may make you the focal point of anger and even cruel remarks. This can be especially difficult to tolerate if you are experiencing your own grief. Try not to engage the teen in a way that will result in building barriers. Instead, shift the focus to the underlying pain the teen is trying to mask with these remarks. The bereaved teen may not be approachable at the moment that the remarks are made; you may want to establish a time to talk in the future and describe what you want to talk about when making your “appointment.”
Times before, during and immediately after a death are disruptive. Try to re-establish a routine, with appropriate expectations and limits, as soon as possible. Teens as well as younger children need the reassurance and sense of security that comes from structure, rules and limits. The main difference in an older teen is that you should be open to negotiate the rules and limits appropriate to the teen’s age. Remembering your own fears and anxieties during this period of your life may help you be less rigid and more reasonable in negotiating rules and limits.
Teens need to be allowed to mourn intermittently. Two teens who were present for the home death of their father were seen playing video games within an hour of his death. Some family members wondered if this was “appropriate” behavior. It was fortunate that a hospice professional was present to reassure the family that this was normal, and that teens need to be given room to mourn in their own ways. Sometimes the overwhelming nature of the loss requires teens to “take a break” from their mourning and engage in whatever may distract them from the loss.
Also be ready for mood swings and emotional expressions at unexpected times. Be prepared for resurfacing of emotions on special days or anniversaries, such as birthdays, holidays and the anniversary of the death of the loved one.
Because a large part of a teen’s time is spent at school, the school’s staff can be invaluable allies in helping teens with their grief. Inform the teen’s school guidance counselor and teachers of the death, and how close your teen was to the deceased. Ask teachers and guidance counselors to provide you with feedback if they see any changes—good or bad—in your teen’s behavior or performance at school. Watch for academic decline. Grieving teens may not be well-rested due to insomnia or interrupted sleep patterns. They may have trouble concentrating in class or completing homework. Offer assistance and, if necessary, see if the school can recommend a tutor.
The secure presence of some understanding, caring, appropriately affectionate adult role models can make all the difference in a teen’s experience of and ability to cope with his or her grief. Remember that each teen’s grief is unique. Let him or her teach you what the loss means, and then help the teen to derive meaning from this loss as he or she grows up.
If grief is severe or prolonged, don’t hesitate to seek grief counseling for your teen. Individual counseling can help address personal issues. Support groups can help your teen feel less isolated and different from other teens. Peer groups usually are more authoritative than parents during the teen years. A well-facilitated youth group can help immensely with teens’ grief.
Always seek professional help and evaluation if the death was the result of a violent act or if the teen has developed symptoms that are of concern to you. Grief often is expressed through behavior. Your teen needs to hear that you care about him or her even if the teen is acting out.