The loss of a loved one never gets easy. Depending on how it happened, if it was anticipated, and the relationship to the deceased, the magnitude of our grieving can vary. But each death is different in itself, and there is no predicting how we will process something until it happens–because emotions are erratic. For teens, this is even a more delicate matter. You may not be able to take your kid’s pain away but you certainly can find ways to be there with them as they deal with the loss.
Through the later year of adolescence, children begin to shape their own worldview and juggle many stressors of adolescent life such as academics, fitting in, preparing for the future, sports, dating, developing values, and artistic expression. Teens crave to be accepted by their peers and feel normal so when a death occurs, it shakes their foundation of what was safe. The best you can do as a caregiver is to be compassionate and empathetic–be there with them, as a friend, through the suffering–without interfering with their coping. However, you can intervene if they choose to use destructive maladaptive coping mechanisms such as self-medicating with substances, obsessively eating, or not eating at all, intensely withdrawing from friends and activities, or violent behavior. And if they have suicidal ideation or attempt suicide, there will need to be professional intervention.
Tips to Support the Process
Whether it is a loss of a parent, sibling, grandparent, close family member, friend, or pet, your teen will likely go through a completely different grieving process than you or others affected by the death. There is no one way or “normal” way to process grief.
Allow them to grieve their own way
It is important to not shame your teen for grieving differently than you or what you deem appropriate. Some might have uncontrollable crying spells, others may become angry, many will pretend nothing is wrong, and some teens may develop or exasperate symptoms of mental disorders. Do not force them to talk about their loss but do check in by simply asking how they are doing. If they are open to talking, see if they want to discuss their grief. If they decide to open up, listen intently without giving unsolicited advice, and validate their emotions.
If the tragic event occurred suddenly, your teen may have a lot of existential questions about death, the meaning of life, the purpose of religion, and so forth. Be open to having these conversations with an open mind and open heart, without implying your beliefs are the ultimate truth. After a shocking change in a teenagers life, they will likely begin to challenge how they see the world, how they perceive relational bonds and spirituality as a way to understand. If the death was anticipated, like an illness, then be honest about what happened to their loved one, even if the details make you uncomfortable too. Being honest will prevent denial and resentment later in life.
Get objective support
Teens with a history of mental illness are more vulnerable to dangerous coping so therapy is crucial. But, all teens going through loss can benefit too. Teens tend to open up more to people their age than adults (especially caregivers) so teen therapy groups are a great option. At a teen support group, a teen can talk about their experiences with others going through something similar and freely share about their grief.
Do little things
You do not want to dictate how your teen handles their stress but you can make some thoughtful suggestions. For example, you can propose that they hang out with their friends more or attend social gatherings. Or you can buy them a journal to privately express what they are experiencing. You can even suggest they become involved in the funeral planning such as picking out flowers, designing shirts, contacting people with the logistics of the services, and creating a photo montage.
For more information on teen counseling in Los Angeles, call Insight Treatment at (888) 295-9995.