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The Grief Experience for a Teenager
By Tom McLeod

By the end of high school, 20 percent of today's students will have lost one of their parents; 90 percent will have experienced the death of a close relative or loved one. Add to this the fact that one in every 1,500 secondary school students dies each year, and we can see that death and the resulting grief is a part of everyday life for many teenagers. Recognizing and providing constructive ways for teenagers to express their grief will help prevent prolonged or unresolved grief and depression.

Grief is as unique as the people who experience it, but there are some reactions to grief that everyone feels and that are considered normal or typical grief reactions. Most teens who experience the death of a loved one will sense some of the following:

  • Feelings of heaviness in the chest or tightness in the throat.
  • An empty feeling in the stomach and a loss of appetite.
  • Feelings of guilt over something said or done or left undone or unsaid.
  • Anger and/or lashing out at others that can happen at any time for no real reason.
  • Intense anger at the deceased for dying-and later feelings of guilt for being angry.
  • Mood changes over the slightest things.
  • Unexpected outbursts or crying.
  • Feelings of restlessness, but when something to do is found, it's hard to concentrate on the task.
  • A feeling that the loss isn't real and didn't happen at all.
  • Sensing the deceased's presence, expecting the deceased to walk through the door at the usual time, hearing his or her voice, or even feeling that they see the deceased out of the corner of their eye.
  • Talking to pictures.
  • Having a conversation with the deceased in a special place.
  • Sleeplessness, or troubling dreams.
  • Assuming mannerisms, traits or wearing clothes that were favorites of the deceased.
  • Emotional regression and even bed-wetting, which can be very upsetting for teenagers.
  • A need to retell and remember things about their loved one, to a point of repetition that becomes a burden to others.
  • A need to say nothing at all.
  • A need to become overly responsible.
  • A need to become the "new" man or woman of the household, distracting themselves from their own feelings by taking care of everyone else.

Grief comes and goes. Grief is not something we "get over." It is something with which we learn to live. Teenagers grow up with their grief and experience their loss at different times in their development. Special days and important times may cause emotions to resurface as the loved person is missed. Part of normal development for a teenager is to reintegrate what they have learned about their loss into their current developmental stage.

The first and second years after a loss may be especially difficult. The process of integrating the loss may resurface on these special days. For example, a high school senior wore his deceased father's shirt to his graduation exercises. A 19-year-old bride proposed her first toast to her deceased grandmother, a most significant figure in her life, at her wedding reception.

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