Losing a loved one is one of the most painful things a person can go through. For many teens, this is their first experience with loss and so they may not have all the tools to cope in a healthy way.
You may feel stuck wondering how to help, what to say, or what to do. This is one of the most difficult transitions a person can experience.
Wondering how to support a grieving teen? Here are 5 ways:
1. There’s no right or wrong way to grieve
Everyone experiences loss differently, there’s no “right” way to handle grief. Your teen may experience complicated, even conflicting, emotions all at the same time. They may feel isolated and want to cry, or they may want to laugh and joke with friends, and this may change regularly. It may even change on an hourly basis. Acknowledge that this is probably a very confusing time for them, but it’s not unusual – in fact, it’s very normal. Let them know there’s no right or wrong way to feel and that you’re not judging them.
2. There’s nothing to “get over”
We’re often told that time heals all wounds and often the message we receive from society is that eventually it will be time to “get over it”. But for those experiencing loss, grief never really ends. It is a lifelong, evolving process. Your teen might be feeling external and internal pressure to return to normal, especially since it’s unlikely their friends have had similar experiences. Let them know that although the pain they currently feel may subside over time, there is no pressure to get over it or move on and that you will provide them space to heal.
3. Don’t force them to talk
Following a loss, many teens need time before they’re able to talk openly about the deceased or the circumstances surrounding the death. If your teen isn’t ready to discuss anything, honor that boundary by letting them know it’s OK and that you’ll be there when they’re ready. In the meantime, you can model healthy coping skills by being open about your reactions and feelings, and encouraging self-care activities. Consistent discipline will also provide your teen a sense of safety and security. If you think they could benefit from talking to a counselor, offer it as an option and respect their wishes.
4. Other people may not know what to say
Death can be an uncomfortable topic under even the best of circumstances. Our society is not well-equipped to handle death or conversations around death. When people are uncomfortable or don’t know what to say, they may ignore or avoid the situation – or worse, they may say something hurtful. Prepare your teen for the possibility of unwelcome, insensitive, or hurtful comments, from both adults and their friends. It’s important to emphasize it is not about them, it’s about the other person. Let them know that although others may care, they may not know how to show it properly. Preparing them could help offset any potential damage.
5. Encourage a ritual
As you help your teen through this process, it may be helpful to encourage a ritual to honor their loved one’s memory. What were some phrases or lessons they learned from the deceased? What were their passions or hobbies? What kind of activities did they like to do together? Collaborate with them to figure out how they can continue to stay connected and carry the person with them. It could be writing in a journal, lighting a candle or incense, listening to a favorite song, or a celebration on anniversaries. Allow them to decide whether it will be private or involve others.
One last thought: Reflect on your reactions
How did your family deal with or discuss death when you were growing up? Was your family uncomfortable with death? Is this process new for you as well? It’s hard to witness pain in someone we care about, even harder when we share that pain. There may be a part of you that’s grieving, another part that’s angry, and another that wants everything to go back to normal. If you’re struggling, take some time to send yourself compassion for how difficult it is to comfort a loved one when you are also grieving. Remember that finding support for yourself is as important as finding it for your teen.
Your teen will likely never stop missing their loved one, but with enough support they can move through the grieving process in a healthy and productive way. Remind them that this is their journey, they do not need to follow anyone else’s timeline or roadmap. You don’t have to be a perfect support system, you just need to show up for them. Above all, do what feels right – just as their journey is unique, so too is the way you support them.
Wondering if you or your teen needs to talk to a counselor? Call me at 512-549-8189 or email firstname.lastname@example.org for a free 20-minute consultation.