Unfortunately, for too many teenagers death and the resulting grief are part of everyday life.
By the end of high school, 20 percent of today’s students will have lost one of their parents; 90 percent will have experienced the death of a close relative or loved one. One in every 1,500 secondary school students dies each year.¹
Common Reactions of Grieving Teens
Grief is as unique as the people who experience it, but there are some reactions to grief that we all feel and that are considered normal or typical grief reactions. Most teens who experience the death of a loved one will sense some of the following:
- Feelings of heaviness in the chest or tightness in the throat.
- An empty feeling in the stomach and a loss of appetite.
- Feelings of guilt over something said or done, or something left unsaid or undone.
- Anger and lashing out at others that can happen at any time for no real reason.
- Intense anger at the deceased for dying, and later feelings of guilt for being angry.
- Mood changes over the slightest things.
- Unexpected outbursts or crying.
- Feelings of restlessness, but when a task is at hand, it’s hard to concentrate.
- A feeling that the loss isn’t real and didn’t happen at all.
- Sensing the deceased’s presence, expecting the deceased to walk through the door at the usual time, hearing his or her voice, or even feeling that they see the deceased out of the corner of their eye.
- Talking to pictures.
- Having a conversation with the deceased in a special place.
- Sleeplessness or troubling dreams.
- Assuming mannerisms, traits or wearing clothes that were favorites of the deceased.
- Emotional regression and even bed-wetting, which can be very upsetting for teenagers.
- A need to retell and remember things about their loved one, to a point of repetition that becomes a burden to others.
- An inability to say anything, or the need to be overly responsible.
- Taking on the role of the “new” man or woman of the household, distracting themselves from their own feelings by taking care of everyone else.
No “Right” or “Wrong” Way to Grieve
A teen who experiences the death of a loved one needs to know that there is no "right" or "wrong" way to grieve. But there are some helpful and some not-so-helpful ways to grieve. Providing constructive ways for teenagers to express their grief will help prevent prolonged or unresolved grief and depression. Suggest constructive ways to express their feelings-talking to someone they trust, journaling, creating art-instead of holding feelings in or turning to more destructive coping methods, such as drinking, substance abuse, antisocial or high-risk behaviors.
The Ebb and Flow of Grief
Grief comes and goes. It is not something we "get over," but something we learn to live with. Although the first and second years may be especially difficult, teenagers grow up with their grief and experience their loss at different times in their development.
Special days and important times may cause emotions to resurface as the loved person is missed. Part of normal development for a teenager is to reintegrate what they have learned about their loss into their current developmental stage. For example, a high school senior may wear his deceased father's shirt to his graduation exercises. A 19-year-old bride may propose her first toast to her deceased grandmother, a most significant figure in her life, at her wedding reception.
The teenage years can be a turbulent time, but for those who've experienced the death of a relative or friend it can be especially emotional. Like the changing seasons, the grief these teens experience will be ongoing and ever-changing as they grow into adulthood.