Families in Grief offers support for the parents and carers of bereaved teenagers and young people.
Here is some advice and practical tips from our friends at Child Bereavement UK.
“I feel very angry at no one in particular, just anger”
Anger makes up a large part of any child’s grief but for a teenager even more so. Some teenagers have told us that they don’t know why they feel angry, they just do. They may experience angry outbursts at school, or at home. Teenagers are often at a loss as to what to do with their anger and feel quite frightened by it. Often powerless to control it, the pressure builds and the resultant explosion comes out as challenging or extreme behaviour. This can be very difficult for an already distressed family to deal with.
Let a young person know that they are entitled to be angry but need to express it in a way that is safe for themselves and others.
“I went a bit mad”
Even after someone has died, a frenetic social life often continues to be an important part of any teenager’s day. This might seem out of place but bereaved young people have told us that they find spending time with friends, and going out to their usual haunts, a helpful coping strategy. It also enables them to escape from a possibly highly-charged atmosphere at home. Teenagers may try out risk-taking behaviour in an attempt to get back some control in a life that for them now feels very out of control. Parents, siblings and friends are not meant to die when young. Being out of the natural order of things, young people can view these untimely deaths as a huge injustice and intensely unfair. Misuse of alcohol and drugs helps blot out painful feelings. Driving recklessly, but remaining unscathed, can give a teenager a sense of being back in control, particularly of their own mortality.
“It’s hard to talk to your parents about who died in case you cry and make them cry.”
Many young people find it easier to speak to friends rather than family. This can feel quite hurtful for adults who are trying their best to offer support and comfort which is then rejected. Try to remember that teenagers can be very protective of their family. In order to avoid causing further distress, they may prefer to speak to someone of their own age group, or other adults they trust such as a teacher.
“I lost (friends) simply because they did not know what to say or do”
Friends can also be a source of distress and upset. Insensitive remarks or even deliberately inappropriate comments are not unusual. The situation can remind friends of their own inadequacies and losses and they then withdraw their friendship, finding the situation just too hard to handle. Bereaved teens can feel that friends just don’t understand and they then struggle to maintain social groups.
“I wondered what the point of going back to school was”
For a teenager whose world has just fallen apart, life can lose its purpose and meaning. They may become apathetic, depressed, withdrawn and develop a “what’s the point” attitude to school or even life. “I felt like nothing mattered any more, like everything seemed really trivial and all my work just didn’t really matter.” Others may become very hard working to compensate for feelings of guilt.
How To Help
“I tried to talk to various people but I couldn’t relate to anyone”
Most of the help offered to grieving teenagers by adults involves talking. This is something most teens find very hard to do, especially with someone they do not know. Taking part in an activity helps a teenager to feel less pressurised into talking. Just being with an adult who they know cares is sometimes enough. When ready, they might start a conversation about what has happened, but don’t expect it. In our experience, other things that work include being with other bereaved people the same age, doing something creative such as a memory collage cut of magazines, making a short film about what helps, using a box of buttons to talk about important people, or simply taking the dog for a walk.
Try to maintain the usual expectations around behaviour. When a teenager’s world has fallen apart, they need familiar boundaries maintained, not removed, to create a sense of safety and continuity of normal life, even when life feels very far from normal.
Bereaved young adults can experience feelings of low self-worth and lack of self-esteem. However, they often have a maturity beyond their years, a greater appreciation of the value of life than their peers and can be less judgemental than others their own age. These are very worthy attributes to highlight to a young person who is struggling to think of themselves in a positive light.
When is extra help needed?
Grief is not an illness or a condition, it is normal, as are extreme responses to it. It is when these responses continue into the long term that there may be cause for concern. A young person will not get over their grief, but with timely and appropriate support, they will hopefully learn to live with it. If it is preventing them from engaging with normal life, do not hesitate to seek help. Most young people will not need professional help but some will need a bit of extra support. Others will require a more in-depth approach with bereavement counselling, or therapy.