How Adolescents Grieve

The process of grieving is unique to each person. Each of us contains or expresses a loss slightly differently. However, there are developmental patterns visible in the ways that children and adolescents deal with loss. As an example, young children do not have the concept of permanence in their repertoire yet. Adolescents do. Given the recent tragic loss of a member of Daniel Hand High School's senior class, it seems appropriate to look at the ways in which teenagers respond to loss, specifically to the loss of a friend, and what kinds of support are especially helpful to them.

Adolescents are in the process of separating from their families. Their peer group is the place where they get validation. Therefore, teens mourn with each other. They meet in places that were meaningful to them and to their deceased friend. In cases of an accident, they may meet where the friend died. Adolescents attend calling hours and funerals in groups. They write messages to and about the deceased friend. They listen to, and play music that has meaning to them. They cry together.

Signs of Grieving

Grieving plays out in several life areas. Teens can be restless, hyperactive, searching for something to do - and they can be absent-minded. They can withdraw socially - or become hyper-social. They can become involved in self-destructive behaviors. They can plan and execute projects to memorialize the friend. The more complicated the relationship with the deceased friend, the more complicated the grieving. An adolescent might feel guilty about not being a better friend, about laughing at jokes, about being happy, about looking forward to something, about not hanging out with the friend enough. If the cause of death is some form of risky behavior, an adolescent may feel that he or she could have saved the friend "if only" they had been in the car, or had told someone, or had challenged the friend about her behavior. Teens can be emotionally all over the place - angry at friends, snapping at parents, withdrawn, depresses, jealous of people who haven't lost a friend, and judgmental of peers who act either more sad than they think is right or less sad than is appropriate. The concept of who was closer to the deceased friend, or who should be more miserable - who's in and who's out - is very present.

The tasks of mourning include the following:
  • Re-establishing a sense of safety so that one can grieve in a healthy way
  • Acknowledging the death and what it means to the individual and to the peer community
  • Experiencing all the emotions involved with the loss
  • Adjusting to an environment without the deceased friend
  • Reinvesting in life and in the developmental work appropriate to the griever's life stage.
To get through these tasks requires that grieving adolescents receive validation and support for what they are feeling from the significant adults in their lives - parents, teachers, coaches, siblings. They need to have their feelings respected and to have safe environments in which to express them. They need to hear that mood changes, that being distracted, etc., are normal. They need continuity, routine, rituals, and places to gather. What adults can provide are safe, supervised settings for teens to be together - to talk, play music, play basketball, to jam, to write. Food is important - pizza, snacks, milk and cookies. Adults should be available to talk, to check in with the kids, making sure that they are not driving when they seem too spacey or are too emotionally upset

When to Seek Counseling

As grieving can be quite complicated, it may be difficult to discern when a teen's grief warrants referral to grief counseling or psychotherapy. It is important to weigh several factors, including the degree of difficulties that a teen may be experiencing and the teen's willingness to meet with a counselor. It is important to remember that if a teen has connections with healthy, supportive adults and/or peers, then much of the emotional processing happens quite naturally with those people. Generally speaking, teens that overly isolate themselves from their support system, teens who engage in dangerous or self-destructive behaviors, or teens that have experienced previous physical or emotional trauma in relation to the death are likely in need of therapeutic intervention. Other factors, such as lack of supportive people, history of previous losses, or history of emotional or substance abuse problems can further complicate the grief process and benefit from professional help. Teens that may need more help but oppose the notion of counseling may need a little time or coaxing to give it a try. Parents, peers and counselors sometime need to strategize to reach out to teens that are struggling.

There are resources in the community that can help. Madison Youth and Family Services can be contacted with inquiries for counseling services or questions about other area resources. Madison Youth and Family Services is also there to help community members by discussing individual situations and make plans to address concerns. Infoline, (211) is a resource finder as well and they it can connect you with EMPS (Emergency Mobile Psychiatric Services) in crisis situations.

Taffy Bowes
Former Assistant Director for Prevention
Madison Youth and Family Services