The death of a loved one is difficult at any age, but it can be especially tough for teenagers, who are already dealing with the ups and downs of adolescence. We asked Dominique Butler, former school liaison for the Elisabeth Severance Prentiss Bereavement Center of the Hospice of the Western Reserve, how to help a grieving teenager—whether it’s your own child or a friend.
1. Grieving teenagers still want to be “normal.”
Adolescence is a time when most teens just want to fit in. So when a tragedy sets a teen apart, it’s all the harder. “They are looking for a sense of normalcy,” says Butler. “They don’t want to be singled out.” You can support a grieving teenager by sticking with routines and, especially if the teen is a friend of your teenager, continuing to welcome them in your home. Just because a teenager is coping with the loss of a loved one, that doesn’t mean that teen wants you to stop inviting them over, Butler adds. “So many people stop because they don’t want to deal with that burden.” The Bereavement Center is a community-based grief support program offering services throughout Northeast Ohio.
2. Friends are important.
Adolescence is also a time when peers play a starring role, much more so than in early childhood. So it should come as no surprise that when it comes to teenage grief and loss, teens may lean more on peers than grown-ups. “Adults worry because this age group can seem unaffected, or they shut down and don’t want to talk,” explains Butler. “That is okay, as long as they are using other outlets to help them and, for many teens, that will be their friends.”
3. Let a grieving teenager take the lead.
It’s not helpful to try to direct what a grieving teenager should do, say, or feel. Rather, follow where they lead. For example, don’t force a teenager to have a conversation. “If they want to talk about it, go ahead,” advises Butler. “If they don’t, just be there.”
4. Be careful with your language.
It’s hard to know what to say to a grieving teenager. What not to say: “Things will get better,” or “Shouldn’t you be over this by now?” What you could say instead: “How are you?” or even “Do you want to talk about it?” Again, follow the teen’s lead.
5. Give them something to do.
This can include helping to memorialize the family member or friend. For example, Butler recently worked with a group of teenagers mourning the death of a peer. “They decided to make T-shirts in his memory,” she says. “Many teens find comfort in the act of doing.”
6. Be honest.
This is particularly important in the event of an “anticipated death,” such as a terminal illness. “Sometimes out of a desire to protect our children, we’re not completely honest about a situation,” Butler says. “But they know something is happening, so be very honest about what is going on. If not, resentment can build up.”
7. Get help if needed (or asked for).
With time, most grieving teenagers are able to get back to the normal routines of daily living, though you should anticipate ups and downs. “Grief is like the ocean,” notes Butler. “It ebbs and flows. One day you are okay. The next day you are not.” But when it comes to teen grief, some struggle more than others and may need additional support.
Warning signs to get more help include problems with normal activities; suicidal ideation (“I want to die, too”); self-medicating with drugs or alcohol; and frequent angry outbursts. A support group can be a helpful first step. “We don’t ever get over the death of a person; we get through it,” says Butler. “A support group allows a grieving teenager to talk about the person they’ve lost, to know they are not alone, and to have the chance to help others by sharing their own story.”