A teenage girl sits beside a hospital bed, holding the hand of her dying grandfather. Tears roll down her cheeks; she knows the end is near, yet doesn’t want to acknowledge it. After 13 days in hospice, her grandfather takes his last breath, and her world is shattered. Grief overwhelms her entire being, enveloping her world.
At school, she bursts into tears for no reason, or as it would seem to outside observers. A memory, a moment, flashes in front of her eyes, and she finds herself frozen in place in the middle of the high school hallway. She begins to develop symptoms of severe anxiety and PTSD as she struggles to cope with the loss. Unprocessed emotions become stuck, resulting in emotional trauma symptoms. The peers who were supposed to be her friends are all making comments. They don’t understand, having never lost a loved one so close.
Grief doesn’t look the same on everyone. Some find it to be a traumatic experience, while others rely on their spirituality to tell them the person is in a better, happier place. For teens, grief can get a little more complicated.
Adolescent Grief is Different
Everyone experiences grief in their own way, but for teenagers, grief is different. Teens are often isolated in their grief. They aren’t as comfortable as they once were to come to their parents or another adult for support. Despite their grief, they still crave their independence. There can also be a strong pull to suppress feelings and appear “normal” to their peers. Adolescence is also a time when many teens question what they believe in. They may not be sure about their spiritual beliefs and may question the process of death and what happens afterward.
Teens may mask their grief with negative, self defeating behaviors including…
- substance abuse
- isolation from friends and family
- sleeping little or too much
- developing eating disorders like bulimia, anorexia, or a combination
They may use these behaviors as coping mechanisms for their confusion and pain. It’s important to help a grieving teenager process this difficult experience in constructive ways.
Helping Teens With Their Grief
Helping troubled teens dealing with grief isn’t always easy, but even when they push you away, they still need your help. Here are some things you can do:
Be Available to talk about what they are experiencing. Let them discuss their thoughts, their feelings and their emotions without judgment or condescension. They have every right to their ideas, whether they are discussing their thoughts on spirituality or simply how much they miss their loved one.
Encourage them to think back on fond memories with the loved one. Spending time recreating Grandma’s donut recipe in the kitchen or bird-watching with Grandpa’s glasses may help teens feel more connected to those who have passed.
Don’t Compare how one child in the family deals with difficulty to another. Focus on individuals and their strengths. Be sure to give each of your children an equal amount of attention and help through their grief.
Let Her Know that you love her, but that you understand she may be more comfortable discussing her emotions with someone else. Encourage her to discuss her feelings with friends who have been through a similar situation, offer to set up mental health counseling or provide her with easy access to other adults that she may be willing to talk to.
Try to Put difficult emotions into context. Teens dealing with death may shift moods quickly, and some emotions can seem volatile. Wait until they calm down, then help them express themselves so you can better understand. Most importantly, be open and accepting of their emotions regardless of how they are expressed. There is no right or wrong way to grieve.
Don’t Let Things get too volatile. Violence, substance abuse and eating disorders are not a normal part of grief. You may need outside help to deal with the substance and mental health issues.
Know The Difference between being sad and upset and being mentally unstable. Deaths are traumatic experiences, and in some cases, as with the first story example, can lead to anxiety depression and PTSD. Help for troubled teens with these issues is available and should be sought out immediately.
Helping your daughter through a period of grief isn’t easy, and sometimes it’s best if you don’t do it alone. Greenbrier is here to help students who are dealing with difficult situations like emotional trauma symptoms and the grieving process. We offer talk therapy, equine therapy, art therapy and a supportive community that fosters healing and growth.
Want to learn more about how we can help?