When an adolescent experiences the death of a family member or friend, often adults related to the young person stand by helplessly wondering what to do. It is my experience that the anxiety level of adults rises considerably as they wonder what they can do, what they should do and how a young person is going to cope with the loss.
Although it is a new and frightful world for many adults, it doesn’t need to be. With a bit of common sense and understanding of what a young person is going through, it is possible for adults to provide strong, yet gentle support to a young person during this difficult time.
The following are some tips that will help adults help young people walk the tightrope of grief.
Be open and honest. It is important to “tell it like it is”. No matter how tragic the death is, young people need to know the truth. If it is suicide, don’t try to hide it from a teen. The truth will be told eventually and a young person may decide that adults can’t be trusted.
Encourage them to express their emotions. In North America especially, boys are socialized to be strong and not to cry. Although that is changing in some regions, it is still a norm in many. Expressing emotion is an important part of the grieving process no matter what age we are.
Listen to what they are saying. Death is one of life’s great teachers. This can be an important opportunity to teach young people values and priorities. Rather than the adult setting the agenda for learning, let the young person set the agenda. Listen to the questions that are being asked.
Encourage a young person to be involved with the funeral process. I believe it is a serious mistake to keep young people of any age away from a funeral. The whole process of facing the reality, saying goodbye to the physical body and paying tribute is a very important part of the grieving process. To miss it puts the young person at high risk of a complicated grief.
Don’t force a teen into an adult role. This is a sensitive point, I admit, because in some situations there is no choice other than a teenager in the family assumes responsibilities that were those of a parent who has died. But a comment made to a teenage boy like “Well now, you are the man in the family” only further confuses a young person who is trying to come to grips with the death of his father. Try to find new tasks that are reasonable that still leave time for a young person to enjoy the teen years.
Give them an opportunity to memorialize the one who has died. This is especially true if a classmate or close friend has died. Often the surviving young people feel guilty that they are still alive with their future ahead of them, when a young friend is dead. By creating a meaningful memorial for that teen, it may help to alleviate the guilt. A memorial also gives the surviving friends a sense that their friend will not be forgotten.
Provide them with resources. Although there isn’t a lot written for teenagers, there are some resources that would be helpful for them. Check out your local funeral home or public library for resources that are available. Another resource that may be available is a support group for teens that may be offered by a local school, mental health unit or funeral home.
Young people seem resilient and may give the impression of not being affected by the death or having “gotten over it” very quickly. However, this is not usually the case and deep inside they are grieving. When adults can take time to listen, to provide resources and basically just understand, the tightrope of grief will not be as terrifying as it would be if the young person felt abandoned and misunderstood.
Updated: February 23, 2014