Death is a fundamental part of our lifecycle. What is more, the death of a loved one is an event each one of us will experience, likely multiple times throughout our lifetimes. Confronting death and accepting loss is a personal experience you cannot compare with someone else’s. You’ll grieve in your unique way, and healing will travel its course differently in each of us.
It is essential that parents understand adolescents grieve differently than adults. While teens maintain an adult understanding of death, they do not yet have the experiences—or developed coping skills—that an adult has.
Understanding Your Teen’s Perspective on Death
To help your teen cope with their grief after they’ve experienced loss from the death of a loved one, parents first need to understand how their teen views death.
For starters, they experience intense emotions like sadness or loss, differently. Their grief will come and go, often, being strongest felt during certain milestones in their life. They may show sadness in brief surges—the intensity of the emotion will depend on the type of relationship they had with the one that passed.
The emotional and social maturity of your teen greatly influences how he or she reacts to death:
- He or she may act out in anger at family members
- He or she may exhibit impulsive behaviors, such as substance use
- He or she may show a reluctance to talking about their feelings
- The reality of not being invincible may cause your teen to question his or her faith and understanding of the world
- He or she may withdraw from family, yet spend more time with friends instead
Helping Your Teen Cope with Loss
When a death occurs, teens may experience feelings for which they have no words to express. Although it may be challenging, it is best to talk with them, taking the lead and encouraging them to express their feelings in a way that makes them most comfortable.
Here are some suggestions that may help your young teen cope with the loss of a loved one:
- Encourage your teen to ask questions. Answer them honestly, with real words like “died” rather than “went to sleep.”
- Communicate to your teen that he or she is not at fault.
- Help your teen understand that feelings such as anger and guilt are normal. Explain that these feelings will come and go over time.
- Keep routines as consistent as possible. Continuity offers teens a sense of safety at a time when emotions are running high.
- Reassure your teen that he or she is in no way disloyal to the person who died if they are feeling happy or if they want to have fun.
- Most importantly, create a safe place for your son or daughter to talk about their feelings.
The Dark Side of Grief
Each of us spends a different amount of time working through the various stages of grief, and each stage is experienced with a certain degree of intensity. Speak with a grief counselor, adolescent psychologist, or other mental health professional if you’re concerned your teen is masking their pain through unhealthy outlets and/or self-destructive behavior.
Therapy programs, such as horticultural therapy and wilderness therapy, help teens break down their grief, confront their feelings and develop effective ways to communicate their emotions. At Pacific Quest, our Wilderness Therapy Program offers whole-person therapeutic healing through therapeutic modalities such as expressive mind-body therapy. Through this approach, we can help to encourage acceptance so that teens move safely through their grief. To learn more about Pacific Quest, or to speak to one of our specialists, call us at any time at 808-937-5806. We are ready to help.
In the words of Shakespeare, “Give sorrow words. The grief that does not speak whispers the o’er fraught heart and bids it . . . break.” (Macbeth, Act IV, Scene 1)