How to Help Teens Deal with Grief
This is a guest post by Sarah R. Ward of Sararward.com
Working through grief is not easy for anyone, but teens can experience situations that adults do not in their grieving process. Sara R. Ward lost her father as a teenager and has a unique perspective on what it feels like to grieve as a teenager. She offers 3 Suggestions for How to Help Teens Deal with Grief in this guest post.
How to Help Teens Deal With Grief
I lost my father when I was sixteen years old. When I went back to school after the funeral, I remember everyone treated me like nothing had happened and my life had not been turned upside down. It was their attempt at making things normal for me. My friends all knew my father had died, but everyone avoided the subject. I found myself caught in the conflict between wanting life to be normal again and realizing it never could be.
In the months that followed, only two people brought up my father’s death. One was my high school English teacher, right before he read a poem about death in front of the class.
“Are you going to be okay with this poem?” he asked me in front of the class. He sat at his desk, book open, ready to read. “Because if you’re not going to be okay, you can leave the classroom.”
I could feel the class staring at me, trying to figure out if a poem about death would undo me. It didn’t feel like an invitation, it felt like an interrogation. I bristled in my seat, under the weight of the elephant in the room.
“I’m okay,” I replied, feeling embarrassment creep up my skin.
Everyone turned to the poem as the teacher began reading, but I could only think about his question: Are you going to be okay?
The teacher, trying to be sensitive, had given me permission to leave. But in the moment, it felt anything but sensitive; instead, it felt like my grief was an awkward interruption, the thing everyone wanted to avoid talking about.
People wanted me to be okay. I wanted to be okay. But I did’t know how to talk about being okay and I certainly didn’t want to talk about it in front of my high school English class.
At the same time, I wanted someone to ask me how I felt, to sit with me through the ugly stuff, and not ask me to leave.
I wanted them to tell me, it’s okay to not be okay. And I wanted them to mean it.
3 Ways to Help Teens Deal with Loss
So how do we help teens navigate grief and loss in their lives? How do we help reassure them that it’s okay to not be okay?
Whether it’s facing a tragic event or the loss of a loved one, teens learn to navigate grief the way all of us do—by living through it and learning from the experience. Though teens may appear to handle it like an adult, they still need our help to understand what is healthy grieving and what is not.
While there’s not one right approach for healthy grieving, here are three important ways you can offer support for a teen who is dealing with loss.
- Recognize it’s normal for teens to experience a wide range of emotions.
Teens may be moody, angry, or anxious in the months and years following a loss. Like adults, different emotions are part of the grieving process and are considered normal responses to grief (with the exception of self-destructive behaviors). Since most teens have not dealt with a significant loss before, they may need help processing their feelings. Encourage open lines of communication and validate their feelings. When you reach out to them, follow their lead and allow them to express emotions as they feel comfortable.
Some teens have trouble sharing their feelings and mask their true emotions. In these cases, journaling or seeing a counselor can be positive ways to share thoughts that teens would have difficulty expressing otherwise.
- Be a companion on the grief journey.
Companioning someone means walking beside them through their grief. It involves listening to their thoughts and acknowledging that they feel sad. Avoid offering pat answers like, “You’ll be okay” or “It’s not that bad.” These kinds of responses minimize their feelings and close the door to more communication. Acknowledge that grief takes years and be patient with them as they navigate this journey. Companioning them is the best way to offer support through their loss.
- Work through the big questions with them.
Teens who’ve experienced a dramatic change in their lives begin to ask questions like “How could this happen?” and “Why me?”
Although not all youth are ready to handle deep questions, some need to struggle with issues of life and death before they can find peace. Look at this opportunity as a continuing conversation about beliefs, heaven, suffering, and faith. Talk about people in the Bible who have suffered, including the story of a man named Job. Allow teens to talk through how they responded to suffering as you help guide them toward truth.
For teens, walking through grief may lead to a better understanding of their identity and what matters in life. As they work through their feelings, they will develop a deeper understanding of themselves and their faith. They’ll discover that in the end, it’s okay to not be okay.
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