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How to lovingly navigate turbulent teen grief

Take a trip down memory lane with me…

Remember back to your teen years. Trying to stretch your independence and avoid being grounded. Figuring out who you are and who you want to become and what you’ll major in. Navigating the ins and outs of friendships, peer pressure and trying to fit in. The deep ache of your first break up. Crushes, spirit days, sports, chemistry, English and math that all somehow manage to blend together into days and years of being not quite an adult and not quite a child.

Now add in the death of someone close to you and the confusing waves of grief and devastating losses that go with it.

Grief definitely increases the intensity of those teen years. So let’s talk about how grief is different for teens and how you can support them through it. 

A few important things to keep in mind…

1. Your brain’s frontal lobe isn’t fully developed til you’re 25. It’s in charge of planning, working memory, attention, inhibition, self-monitoring and self-regulation, problem-solving, judgement, and decision-making. Which is why teens are known for being a little reckless, impulsive, and don’t always make great choices. (41% of grieving teens admitted they acted recklessly or in other ways that weren’t good for them physically or mentally. – National Poll of Bereaved Children & Teenagers)

2. Teen years are all about the transition from being dependent on our guardians to being an independent human. There’s always a push and pull that happens during this time. Grief doesn’t change this and some teens will want to grieve alone or look to their peers for support. They may not be open to parental support because of their need to be independent. (59% of grieving teens said spending time with friends helped them with the loss. – National Poll of Bereaved Children & Teenagers)

3. This could be their first encounter with death and their coping skills and self-care skills are still a work in progress.

4. Everyone is unique. Our grief is ours alone. And our relationship to the person we lost is also unique. You know the teens in your life best. Some of this will apply but not all of it. And if you’re concerned with their behaviour don’t hesitate to get help.

Sprinkled throughout this article are direct quotes from teens taken from the Children’s Grief Awareness Day website because there’s no better way to understand our complex teens than to hear from them directly.

I had just lost my aunt to cancer. She was only 38 yrs old and she had a huge impact on my life. I thought “Nobody knows how I feel, nobody knows what’s going on in my life”. I was devastated when she died and I felt that I no longer had anyone or control of anything. My grades were slipping and I started making poor choices.

Sidney, 15 yrs old

How grief is different for teens

Teens understand the finality of death but may not have developed coping skills for grief yet which means their emotions may seem overly dramatic or repressed. And they might struggle to understand grief reactions that are different from their own. Acting out in anger is common and so is struggling with school and grades that aren’t what they used to be.  

Socially teens still want to fit in and seem “normal” (sticking to a familiar routine might help with that). They might rely on their friend even more during this time or alternatively withdraw from their social circle. Impulsiveness, recklessness and sexual promiscuity can be reactions to grief.  

Death can lead to an existential crisis and many teens will ponder big philosophical questions like “what’s the meaning of life?” or question their religious or spiritual beliefs like “why would God let this happen?”

I had so many unanswered questions running through my mind. Why did he have to die? What was going to happen to me? Would my pain ever go away? I felt angry and alone. None of my friends understood what I was going through. A lot of them stopped talking to me, probably because they didn’t know what to say and didn’t want to upset me.

Crystal, 23 yrs old

Re-grieving

Grief isn’t linear and it doesn’t progress nicely through a prescribed series of stages (if only!). When a teen loses someone they were very close to it’s normal for grief to crop up not just for holidays or anniversaries but major life milestones too. Things like graduation, weddings, landing that promotion or having children might be joyous occasions but they can also highlight the absence of the person they lost. Remind them it’s okay to be sad AND happy on these bittersweet days. Encourage them to feel their pain and take extra good care of themselves instead of avoiding or ignoring the grief.

When my Mom asked how I was doing I’d quickly reply that I was fine, not wanting to confide in her what was really happening to me. I had no support from any of my friends so I felt the need to isolate myself. I was battling grief all by myself because I knew my parents and siblings were busy dealing with their own grief. Emotionally, my family and I were on different planets.

Hannah, 15 yrs old

How you can help

The major difference between helping children with grief and helping teens is a shift more into listening rather than leading, instead of directing them through their grief walk through it with them side by side.

Because their friends are so important, if your teen is open to the idea it can help to find a grief group for teens so they have a safe space to talk about their grief with peers who get it.

Don’t be afraid to share stories of the person they lost so your teen knows it’s okay to talk about them and encourage them to share their own stories. Look at photographs together or watch a sad movie or listen to sad songs, let your teen talk if they want to but no pressure. Be available, make time to listen, and give them your undivided attention.

Talk about how everyone grieves differently, normalize and validate their feelings. Be patient and open-minded because they may grieve very differently than you do. Include them in planning the funeral, memorial, etc. and if this is their first funeral, tell them what to expect. Don’t force them to participate in activities that make them feel uncomfortable (i.e. speaking at the funeral). 

If your teen is acting out, communicate clear boundaries and expectations. Show that you understand their behaviour may be a symptom of not expressing their grief but we still have boundaries. Enlist community help when you need it (teachers, counselors, trusted adults, clergy, aunts/uncles) – it takes a village!

If they’re struggling to verbalize their emotions it might be helpful for your teen to express themselves through a creative medium of choice and talk about what they made instead. 

Remember it’s okay to allow your teen to see you grieve. But if you’re REALLY struggling your teen might feel anxious or like they need to take on adult responsibilities. Don’t forget to also get help for you (that’s what I’m here for).

These are turbulent times

Walking through grief with our teens is a little bit like being on a flight that’s hit turbulence. YOU know turbulence can be scary and unsettling but it doesn’t last forever and you’ll get through it. Your teens don’t have the experience to know this yet so everything feels more intense.

Sometimes the best thing you can do is sit next to them on the rocking airplane, give them your undivided attention, listen and acknowledge how scary it feels. You can offer to watch a movie with them or allow them to switch seats so they can be with their friends.

The turbulence that grief causes can make for a very loooooong flight so be patient and remember that turbulence can pop up again unannounced and that’s okay – it’s just a part of the journey.

I’m reminded of a quote from Brené Brown, “Strong back, soft front, wild heart”. I think it’s a great mantra for navigating grief with our teens. Because we need courage (strong back), vulnerability and love (soft front) and a wild heart (that knows joy and gratitude without denying the struggle) to have these hard conversations and walk alongside our teens who are grieving in the midst of those intense, hormone-filled years. 

Nothing can erase the awkwardness of being a teenager but learning the tools to navigate grief can help ease the ache and the angst. And it’s something they can take with them throughout their whole lives.

If you’d like support in becoming a ‘Grief Coach’ for your kids, I’ve got a couple of options for you. Sign up here to be the first to know about my two upcoming online courses – the introductory (and self-guided) Children and Grief course and the 4-week online workshop (guided by me) Helping Children with Loss course. Both of these programs will teach you how to navigate conversations around grief with your kids (no matter what their age or the loss they’re grieving). And both share the tools you can pass on to help your kids & teens complete their grief. The main difference being one is an intro course that you can do in your own time and the other is a deeper dive with a small group of other adults over 4 weeks. 

Registration is opening soon, so if you’re interested sign up here.

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