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.