Teens & Grief

By Donna Schuurman, Ed.D. & Amy Barrett Lindholm, M.S.
The Prevention Researcher,
Volume 9, Number 2, 2002, Pages 1,3-5

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Feature Article:

What is it like for teenagers when someone close to them dies? How do they respond to the death of a parent, a sibling, a relative, a friend? In our work, we've learned that teens respond to adults who choose to be companions on the grief journey rather than direct it. We have also discovered that adult companions need to be aware of their own grief issues and journeys because their experiences and beliefs impact the way they relate to teens.

People often confuse "grieving" and "mourning." Grieving refers to the internal experience of the teen, whereas mourning is the public expression of the internal grief. Keep in mind that when a teen loses someone significant, he or she is grieving whether you can see it or not. Like adults, a teen experiences a broad range of emotions and physical reactions after someone dies. Adults are sometimes surprised to notice that teenagers grieve differently than they do. For example, the death of a close teen friend may evoke more intense grief than the death of a grandparent. Adults who don't expect this may minimize the impact of the death of a peer because they don't acknowledge or understand the significance of this friendship to the teen.

Six Basic Principles of Grief

1. Grieving is a natural reaction to a death.
Even though grieving is a natural reaction to death and other losses, it does not feel natural because it may be difficult to control the emotions, thoughts, or physical feelings associated with death. The sense of being out of control that is often a part of grief may overwhelm or frighten some teens. Helping teens accept the reality that they can grieve allows them to do their grief work and to progress in their grief journey.

2. Each grieving experience is unique.
Grieving is a different experience for each person. Teens grieve for different lengths of time and express a wide spectrum of emotions. While many theories and models of the grieving process provide a helpful framework, the path itself is individual, and often lonely. No book or grief therapist can predict or prescribe exactly what a teen will or should go through on the grief journey. Adults can best assist grieving teenagers by accompanying them on their journey in the role of listener and learner, and by allowing the teen to function as a teacher.

3. There are no "right" and "wrong" ways to grieve.
There is no correct way to grieve. Coping with a death does not follow a simple pattern or set of rules nor is it a course to be evaluated or graded. There are, however, "helpful" and "unhelpful" choices and behaviors associated with the grieving process. Some behaviors are constructive and encourage facing grief such as talking with trusted friends, journaling, creating art, and expressing emotion rather than holding it inside. Other grief responses are destructive and may cause long-term complications and consequences. These include alcohol and substance use, reckless sexual activity, antisocial behaviors, and withdrawal from social activities.

4. Every death is unique and is experienced differently.
The way teens grieve differs according to their personality and the particular relationship they had with the deceased. For many teens, peer relationships are primary. The death or loss of a boy/girlfriend may affect some teens more than the death of a sibling or grandparent. Within a family each person may mourn differently at different times. This can generate a great deal of tension and misunderstanding within the already-stressed family. Each person's responses to death should be honored as his or her way of coping in that moment. Keep in mind that responses may change from day to day or even from hour to hour.

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