Grief: it’s a normal process and every person will inevitably experience it, at some point in their lives.
When it comes to teenagers and grief, there are a few questions that commonly arise. How do teenagers experience grief? Is their grief different from the grief an adult experiences? Furthermore, how can teenagers be helped to cope with their grief?
What is Grief?
The terms to grieveand to mourn are not interchangeable. Grieving is the internal experience of a person, while mourning is the public expression of that person’s internal grief.
When it comes to teenagers, we have to understand that when a young person loses somebody close to them, they are grieving – whether signs of this are visible or not.
Teenagers, as well as adults, experience a broad range of emotions and physical reactions after the death of a loved one (Schuurman & Lindholm, 2002). At any age it is difficult for a person to cope with the death of a loved one, but for a teenager it can be very tough because they are already dealing with the emotional ups and downs of adolescence (Simeon, n.d.).
The Characteristics of Grief
Here are some of the common characteristics of grief, in any age group.
1. Although grieving is a natural reaction, it does not feel natural because of the emotions and thoughts associated with the death of a loved one.
2. Each grieving experience is unique.
3. There are no right and wrong ways to grieve. Coping with the death of a loved one does not have a set of rules or a specific pattern to be followed.
4. Every death is unique and is experienced differently.
5. There are a variety of factors that have an impact on the grieving process, including the:
- Social support systems that are available;
- Circumstances of the death – for example how, when and where the person died;
- Nature of the relationship with the deceased;
- Level of involvement the person had in the dying process of the deceased;
- Individual’s previous experience with death.
6. Grief is ongoing, it does not end, but changes in character and levels of intensity.
Common Types of Teenage Grief
There are various types of teen grief as identified by Johnson (2001). Here is a list of some of the more common life events, excluding the death of a loved one, that can cause grief in a teenager.
- Sibling separation – when the teen has a sibling that has moved out of the house, and has to adjust to a life without their sibling.
- Divorce division – when one parent moves out of the house because of family breakdown, and becomes separated from the family unit. This can start a grieving process in the teenager.
- Death of a pet – for many children the death of a pet is their first experience with death. Losing a pet can bring great grief, no matter the age of the individual affected.
- A change of school – this can have a profound impact on the teen, and spark a grieving process because s/he has to leave friends behind.
- Romantic troubles – teenagers go through the grieving process when a romantic relationship comes to an end, because many teens take their relationships very seriously.
How is Teenage Grief Different?
Due to the hormones and upheaval common in adolescence, teenagers can experience grief quite differently:
- Adolescents can feel alone in their grief. The teen years are a time when they become more independent, and so they become less comfortable with the idea of seeking help from their parents or other adults.
- The teenager’s self-focus stresses the need to be normal. The teen is constantly under the impression that everyone in the world is constantly looking at them and judging them. Because the teen has the need to fit in, it can be that they will keep their grief at a distance, so as not to stand out in the crowd.
- Teenagers are much more likely turn to the internet and social media to help them cope with their loss.
- Adolescence is a time of spiritual questioning. If a teenager is grieving, s/he may ask themselves what they believe, and chances are they will not rely on their faith as strongly as they might have in childhood.
- Adolescent grief may be hidden under negative behaviours, such as acting out, disordered eating, and alcohol and drug abuse. These may be ways that teens try to cope with their loss, but also their way to seek advice and help. Parents need to be aware of these behaviours and refer the teen for counselling if needed (Doka, 2014).
Because the teenage years are a very emotional time, when the issue of grief is added it can really cause a huge emotional, spiritual and even a physical struggle for the young person.
Helping Teenagers to Cope with Grief
Although there are different ways that teenagers express or experience grief, two things remain the same for adolescents and adults:
- the loss of individual/s close to a person will cause significant grief;
- and a person that is grieving needs understanding and support while they are in the grieving process (Perschy, 2005, p. 7 & 8).
It is important that parents and carers are aware that teenagers’ grief is different to that of adults; it is also important that the teen is aware of the support of the adult, and that the adult is always willing to listen.
If you become really concerned about your teen, taking them to see a counsellor can be useful. The teenager will be empowered with various tools to assist in coping with their loss, and also guided in a safe and supported way through the various stages of grief, towards acceptance.
Author: Corey Human, B Th (Hons), M Counselling, Dip Youth Work, Dip Youth Justice, Dip Couns, Dip Pentecostal Theology, Dip Ministry. Member of PACFA and CCAA.
Corey Human has nearly 20 years’ experience working with teenagers and young people at risk, or struggling with self esteem, depression, video game addiction and other problems. He provides counselling to adolescents, adults, couples, parents and families in both English and Afrikaans.
To make an appointment try Online Booking. Alternatively, you can call M1 Psychology Brisbane on (07) 3067 9129
- Doka, K. J. (2014, June 18). 6 Ways That Adolescent Grief Is Different. Retrieved from https://www.huffingtonpost.com/kenneth-j-doka/six-ways-that-adolescent-_b_5148211.html
- Johnson, P. (2001, August). Helping Teens Cope with Grief. Retrieved from http://cory.dpsk12.org/wp-content/uploads/2011/07/HelpingTeenswithGriefArticle.pdf
- Perschy, M. K. (2005). Helping Teens Work Through Grief (2nd ed.). New York, NY: Brunner-Routledge.
- Schuurman, D., & Lindholm, A. B. (2002, April). Teens & Grief. Retrieved from https://www.gvsu.edu/cms4/asset/903124DF-BD7F-3286-FE3330AA44F994DE/teens_a_grief_2.pdf
- Simeon, D. (n.d.). Understanding Teen Grief: 7 Ways to Help a Grieving Teenager. Retrieved from https://yourteenmag.com/health/teenager-mental-health/help-a-grieving-teenager