Teenage Grieving Process

Teenage Grieving Process

In order to best support your teenager, it is important to understand the teenage grieving process. Teenagers who have lost a loved one will experience a range of feelings, thoughts, physical reactions, and behaviours associated with grief over the days, months, and years that follow the loss.

What is the grieving process?

Grief refers to the natural, internal processes one experiences in response to loss. The grieving process is the psychological and physiological responses a person experiences after the loss of a significant person. Bereavement is the period of time after a loss, during which grief is experienced and mourning occurs. Mourning is an external expression of adapting to a loss, often in the form of cultural customs, rituals, and ceremonies.

When does the teenage grieving process begin?

There is no exact moment or correct instance that the teenage grieving process begins. Each individual grieves differently, and expressions of grief differ depending on various factors, including age, family, relation to the deceased, how expected or unexpected the loss is and individual factors. The teenage grieving process may even begin before their loved one has actually died. For example, if their loved one had a terminal illness, they may begin grieving before the death has occurred. On the other hand, your teen may express signs of numbness and you may feel that they are not grieving at all, even though this is a typical phase of the grieving process. It is important to recognise that grief is not one size fits all. Every teenager is different, and every process of grief is different.

How teenagers grasp the concept of death

An important part of understanding the teenage grieving process is the knowledge of how teenagers grasp the concept of death. Age and developmental level have considerable influence on adolescents’ understanding of and reaction to loss. Teenagers are capable of abstract thinking and can conceptualise death in a more adult manner. They understand more fully that their lives will be different, and they have the capacity to understand the universality, irreversibility and inevitability of death.

Typical feelings, behaviours and physical reactions to expect during the teenage grieving process

The teenage grieving process encompasses a roller coaster of emotions, with unexpected mood changes. Teenagers will typically experience feelings of fear, anger, vulnerability, sadness, shock, longing, guilt, anxiety, and loneliness during throughout their grieving process. It is also common for teenagers to feel resentment that a death has come to their lives. Common behaviours include crying, social withdrawal, restless hyperactivity, absent-minded behaviours, acting out, and avoidance.

Teenagers may experience a variety of physical reactions throughout the grieving process, including tightness in the chest, hollowness in the stomach, dry mouth, sleep disturbances, shortness of breath, oversensitivity to noise, weakness in muscles, fatigue/lack of energy, appetite disturbances and weight loss/gain.

What are common coping mechanisms and how should you support your teen?

It is important to expect that your teenager will adopt various coping mechanisms throughout their grieving process. Common coping mechanisms include; avoiding reminders of the deceased, acting with bravado, visiting places or carrying objects that remind them of the deceased, hiding or repressing their feelings, taking on more responsibilities and acting out through risk-taking behaviours.

Tips to support your teen throughout their grieving process:

  • Encourage them to talk about their thoughts and feelings, and listen without judgement
  • Resist any temptation to “fix” their grief or take away their pain
  • Allow your teen opportunities to feel in control
  • Set and maintain clear boundaries, offering sensitivity to their needs without being overly permissive
  • Provide a caring family environment, avoiding drastic changes if possible
  • Give adolescents truthful information about the process of grieving so they know what to expect
  • Help adolescents preserve memories through stories, pictures, art, songs etc.
  • Reassure them that they will get through this difficult time, acknowledging their strengths and courage.

Grief may heighten at certain times

A key aspect of the teenage grieving process is that grief may heighten at certain times. Specific dates, such as the anniversary of the loss, birthdays, or even holidays may heighten your teen’s grief. Certain dates are difficult as they are often reminders of the loss of a loved one. The unpredictability of how your teen may feel on an anniversary, birthday, or holiday is similar to the distinctiveness of each teen’s grieving process. It is important to prepare your teen and provide them with extra support and care. As a parent, ensure that you normalise the fact that such dates may evoke powerful memories or feelings to anticipate how to cope with them. It may also be helpful to plan with your adolescent how they would like to spend these days and the best way for them to connect on a personal level. Remind them that part of the teenage grieving process is that there will be painful reminders of their loss, but it is important to remember the joyful times shared. Reassure them that they are entitled to feel what they are feeling and they should communicate what they need to process conflicting emotions.

Supporting Children & Teens Through Grief, Anniversaries & Significant Events

Supporting Children & Teens Through Grief, Anniversaries & Significant Events

Parenting through anniversaries and significant events after the loss of a loved one can be challenging. Certain dates may serve as a reminder of a loved one’s death, such as the anniversary of the loss, birthdays and significant holidays. Reminders of the deceased, such as visiting the grave or attending a funeral or memorial for others, may trigger the pain of a loss. Reminders may also be linked to your senses, sights, sounds and smells, such as hearing their lost loved one’s favourite song. Even though reminders of their loss are inevitable, they may elicit a heightened sense of grief for your child.

Planning

Since everyone grieves differently, it is difficult to anticipate how your child may feel on an anniversary, birthday, or holiday. Although, preparing your child for how they may feel on these dates will help normalise the fact that such dates may evoke powerful memories and feelings surrounding their lost loved ones. In fact, knowing that they are likely to experience grief reactions may help them understand them and even turn them into opportunities for healing.

Planning together with your child will give them a greater sense of control and may help ease some anxiety in the lead up to these dates. Your child may want to commemorate special events with ongoing emotional connections with their lost loved one. Alternatively, your child may prefer to keep their memories to themselves and grieve privately, and that is okay too. There is no right or wrong answer with as to what you and your child should or shouldn’t do. Ensure you reiterate to your child that if they change their mind depending on how they feel on the day that is okay too.

Occasions such as birthdays and significant holidays often come with established traditions and rituals. Some families may want to continue their traditions, and others may want to change them as their ‘normal’ has changed. Either decision is okay and whatever you choose together this year can always be changed next year.

Family and friends

Sometimes concerned family or friends may be unsure of how to help as significant dates approach. Be honest that it is a difficult time and let them know what you and your child needs and how they can be helpful. It might be helpful to share the plans with family and friends once you have decided what you would like to do on the day. Your child may want to schedule social activities or plans with loved ones during a potentially lonely day to provide them with extra support and remind them that they are not alone in their grief.

Supporting your child

Significant dates may be bittersweet as you and your child experience the painful reminders of the loss, difficult memories of the death, and the joyful times you shared with your loved one.

Strategies to support your child:

  • Look at the calendar and make a note of events and milestones that may be difficult.
  • Ask your child in advance what they want to do on these dates and plan together.
  • Try spend time with people who are supportive of you and your child if they want to be around loved ones.
  • Offer your child to write in a journal throughout the day.
  • Give your child permission to not be okay, freeing them from expectations.
  • Consider ways your child could express their feelings in a creative way, such as art, writing, or music.
  • Offer your child a forum to connect with others and share their memories.
  • Offer your child to do something that makes them feel good. This may be as simple as going to their favourite café.
  • Hold a personal ceremony or ritual, such as lighting a candle.

What to Say to a Child When a Parent Dies

What to Say to a Child When a Parent Dies

The death of a parent is a very difficult situation for a child to face. Unfortunately, 1 in 20 Australian children will experience the death of a parent, and it is the responsibility of the adults in their lives to guide and support them through their grief. It’s hard to know what to say to a child when their parent dies.

Grief is an emotionally, mentally, and physically exhausting process, so make sure you practice self-care. Although you may feel the need to be available to your child at all times, it’s important that you also look after yourself and your own grief. Here are some recommendations on how to approach the topic of death and what to say to a child when a parent dies.

How to tell a child their parent has died

Telling a child their parent has died will always be difficult. If you’re lost for words and don’t know what to say to a child when a parent dies, you’re not alone. Death is an uncomfortable topic for adults, so we often avoid discussing it with our children. However, delaying the news of their parent’s death or trying to soften your words will not help you child nor will it lessen their pain.

If you are in a position where you need to inform a child of their parent’s death, this is what you should do:

  • Create a safe space: You should choose a quiet space where you can talk without distractions. Include another adult if their presence will comfort your child or you.
  • Be prompt & honest: When approaching your child about the death of their parent, use care and be direct: “I need to tell you something important that will be hard to talk about. Dad died today.” Pause, give your child a moment to process this information, and answer the questions they ask you honestly. Use age-appropriate language when discussing the details of the death, if you have multiple children then start with the language appropriate for the youngest child.
  • Be straight-forward: Selecting the right words is important when deciding what to say to a child when a parent dies. Use words when talking about the death, like “died”, “death”, and “cancer”. Euphemisms like “passed away”, “not well”, and “went away” are too vague and can confuse children. They also might lead to your child jumping to wrong conclusions, like thinking everyone who is sick will die, or their parent will come back.
  • Establish open communication: Your child will have a lot of questions, and you may not know all the answers. This is ok, you just need to keep the lines of communication open so your child feels comfortable voicing their thoughts and feelings. Talk about your feelings and show that you are available to answer questions they have. Including your child in your grief and keeping them informed will help them feel more in control and secure in the knowledge that your family will get through this together.
  • Provide comfort: Children will react differently to the news their parent has died, some will cry, some will ask questions, some will get angry, and some may not seem to react at all. It is important that you remain close to your child during the conversation, reinforce that you are both safe, offer hugs, and highlight that they will be cared for and loved no matter what. Body language and non-verbal communication can be just as important as what you say to a child when their parent dies.
  • “You are not to blame”: Children tend to believe they cause things to happen by what they say or do, so you need to reassure them by emphasising that their parent’s death wasn’t caused by anything they said or did.
  • Discuss next steps: The death of a parent will inevitably change your child’s regular routine. Be clear about any new arrangements that have been made so your child can anticipate those changes, for example: “I will pick you up from school like Mum used to.”
  • Funerals & Memorials: You need to include your child in mourning rituals, like viewings, funerals, and memorials. Make sure you explain ahead of time what they should expect. Offer your child a role in the rituals as even a small role can help them take control of the emotional situation and give them a memory of being involved in the collective grief. Of course, you should let your child decide whether or not they would like to take part.

For more information on what to say to a child when a parent dies and how to parent your child through the initial stages of grief, visit our parenting resources hub, or download our brochures on parenting through immediate loss for children aged 7-9, 10-13, or 14-17.

How to support your child after the death of a parent

Once the funeral is over, normal life returns, but it is difficult because normal life for you and your child is different to what it was before the death. There is no easy or correct way to navigate these changes, but here are some ideas for you to consider:

Communication is vital

The death of a parent is traumatic for children, it can make them feel the world is no longer a safe place. They will have a lot of questions, concerns, thoughts, and feelings, you need to make sure they feel comfortable expressing all of them to you. By listening intently and supportively, you can create a sense of safety and support for your child, which will be both reassuring and comforting to them.

You may not always have all the answers, and you may not always know the “right thing” to say to a child when a parent dies, but this isn’t what your child needs. Instead of going straight into problem-solving mode, you should feel with your child. Confronting and working through difficult emotions together will help your child learn to accept and manage them more effectively.

Maintain continuity

Try to maintain your child’s typical routine to the best of your ability, this includes their normal roles and responsibilities at home, in school, and in the community. They will wish to withdraw from these activities in the initial weeks after the death, this is understandable and you should give them this space, but re-engaging in these normal routines is important for your child’s health. It also allows them to move forward in their grieving process.

Physical and family connection

Give hugs! You and your child are going through a very lonely and trying time, hugs and cuddles will help both of you feel connected, and it will give your child a sense of safety and support. If you need some ideas on appropriate connection activities following the death of a parent, access our list of activities here. You can also seek support from family and friends to help look after your child following the death, this will reinforce to your child that they are surrounding by a loving support network and it will give you a break when your own grieving process becomes overwhelming.

Empower your child

When possible, give your child choices and respect their thoughts and decisions. They have opinions and they will feel valued when they’re given a voice in important matters. Leaving your child out of decisions regarding their parent’s memorialisation can hinder their grieving process.

Remember their parent

Keep pictures of their parent in the house, create a memory box with your child, go through rituals and remembrance activities – although it can be painful to be reminded of the person who has died, it’s important for you and your child to reflect on happy moments and fond memories. This will help you both process your emotions and will move you along in the grieving process.

Ultimately, what you want to do is create a safe and eventually happy environment for you and your child. For more information on what to say to a child when a parent dies and how to parent your child through the initial stages of grief, visit our parenting resources hub, or download our brochures on parenting in the first year after a death for children aged 7-9, 10-13, or 14-17.

Grief Services and Support

Although the death of your child’s parent can make you and your child feel lonely, it’s important to remember that you are not alone. When you feel overwhelmed, you should practice self-care and reach out to access additional grief support services.

Feel the Magic offers free camps to help support you and your child in the difficult time following the death of a parent. If you would like to join a support network of other families who understand what you’re currently experiencing, you should join our grief community. Have more questions about what to say to a child when a parent dies or how to support a child through their grieving process? Please submit an enquiry and we will contact you as soon as possible.

How To Help A Grieving Child Or Adolescent

The key steps in knowing how to help a grieving child or teen is to understand how they grieve, knowing what to expect during the grieving process, and the development of strategies to manage different grief reactions.

Children grieve differently to adults

Grief encompasses the psychological and physiological responses a person experiences after the loss of a significant person. Children and adolescents who have lost someone close to them will experience a range of feelings, thoughts, physical reactions, and behaviours associated with grief over the days, months, and years that follow the loss.

Navigating your way as a parent through your child’s grieving process is challenging, especially when you are also grieving. Children’s expressions of grief are different to adults, and they may slip in and out of grief. They may appear to be coping some days, whilst other days they struggle greatly. Differing expressions of grief may be influenced by various factors, such as age, family situation, relation to the deceased, and how expected or unexpected the loss was to them. As a parent, it is important to recognise and nurture your needs as you are navigating the challenge of how to help a grieving child. You will strengthen your ability to navigate both your own and your child’s challenging grief journey by prioritising self-care.

Do children and teens grasp the concept of death?

When thinking about how to help a grieving child or teen, you may have wondered how much they grasp the concept of death. Their age and developmental level have considerable influence on their understanding of death. Typically, children between the ages of 7 and 13 struggle to develop an understanding of death as permanent. At this age, children have a limited capacity for expressing themselves through language and may express their feelings behaviorally. Adolescents, usually between the ages of 14 to 17, are capable of abstract thinking and can conceptualise death in a more adult manner. Adolescents understand more fully that their lives will be different, and they have the capacity to understand the universality, irreversibility and inevitability of death. It is important when navigating how to help a grieving child or teen that their understanding of death based on their age and developmental level is considered.

What are the typical feelings, behaviours & physical reactions?

Recognising and understanding the typical feelings, behaviours and physical reactions that your child or teen may experience is a key step in how to help a grieving child or teem. Both children and teenagers will typically experience the following:

Feelings
Fear

Shock
Longing
Guilt
Anxiety
Loneliness

Behaviours
Crying
Social withdrawal
Restless hyperactivity

Anger
Vulnerability

Absent-minded behaviours
Avoidance
Adolescents may feel resentment

Physical reactions
Tightness in the chest

Sadness
Despair

Hollowness in the stomach
Dry mouth
Shortness of breath
Oversensitivity to noise
Weakness in muscles
Lack of energy
Appetite disturbance
Weight loss or gain
Sleep disturbances

What does your child or teen need from you?

A vital step in addressing the burning question ‘how to help a grieving child or teen’, is to provide them with a safe space that is non-judgmental and encourages emotional expression in whatever way is right for them. Bereaved children and adolescents need you to reassure them that emotional expression is healthy. They want you to be there for them by providing them with empathy and care, but also opportunities to regain a sense of control and choice. Reassure your child or adolescent that they will get through this difficult time, and ensure that you acknowledge their strengths and courage. It is important that you provide them with adequate support to help them heal from their grief. Feel the Magic offer free camps, programs, resources and a community of families to help children health after the death of a loved one. Click here to enquire.

Key tips for how to help a grieving child or teen:

  • Try to maintain their typical routines.
  • Provide care, reassurance and ensure they feel valued.
  • Use active listening skills.
  • Provide simple, clear, honest, and age-appropriate answers.
  • Normalise emotional expression and talking about grief.
  • Provide them with information about grief.
  • Encourage emotional expression – verbally, creatively, or physically.
  • Reassure them that it was not their fault that the person died.
  • Specifically for teens, it is crucial to set and maintain clear boundaries, offering sensitivity to their needs.
  • Provide them with an environment that offers trust and security.
  • Help them create a diary, memory box or special book to remember their loved one.