Helping bereaved adolescents

Children’s grief will often take them on an emotional roller-coaster but everyone’s bereavement journey will be unique. Grief is normal and necessary and should not be bottled up or covered up, and it is not something you can get over like an illness.  Society tends to think that children should either be “completely protected” or that they are resilient and will “bounce back” without any support.  In our experience, bereaved children experience the bewildering pain of grief, but with support of those who love them they heal.

It is important too that you and other members of the family also have permission to grieve and that you can help each other through this awful experience. Children look to the adults around them to see how to behave when something happens, and this is no different when someone has died. It is not going to damage the children if they see you cry in front of them or with them. It is helpful if you can explain your feelings, “I was just having a little cry because I miss her and sometimes it is hard”.  Saying things out loud helps children to understand their world.  Children are very sensitive to their surroundings and they pick up on feelings and atmosphere within the family. They are likely to worry or blame themselves and may think they shouldn’t talk about the person who has died or show their feelings.  It will help their grieving if they see you are grieving too.

Within families, every member is different and so will grieve differently and unconsciously try to balance each other out – so if one is sad, another might support them by trying to cheer them up. It is done with the best of intentions, but it can stop people from being open about their grief through fear of upsetting the others. Not talking about it doesn’t stop the child from being affected.

When you do talk it is important not to have any expectations. Talk in language that is easy for them to understand but try and stay clear of euphemisms. It is important to be honest, but sensitive. They will value the trust you are placing in them by being honest, which will keep the lines of communication open in future.  They might only listen to begin with, or only take in chunks of information and have to go over the same ground at a later date. The important thing is that they feel able to talk.

The dynamics of the family have also changed and it is not unheard of for a child to try and assume the role that the person who has died – for instance feel duty bound to take on the “adult” role – and it is important that the adults in the family allow them to act their age.

The first year is very significant for everyone.  Children develop at different rates at the best of times and so it is hard to pinpoint exactly how much they understand about what has happened. By early teens, however it is closer to the adult understanding.

At this age children are much more aware of the finality of death and the impact it has on them.  They can understand death as both concrete and abstract. They may experience difficulties in interaction with their peers, and the death can make them feel different at a time they want to be like everybody else. It is important to find ways to build their self esteem. Children of this age are starting to think of the longer term impact of the loss.  They start to think of the important events and milestones that the person will not be part of. At this age they are starting to move away from dependence on the family and this can destabilise them.  Emotional releases and mood swings are common and they will appreciate knowing that their feelings are normal.

Friends and peers are particularly important to them, as they begin to develop their own ideas as to who they are. They want to be accepted, their bodies are changing and they are more aware of their future. It is quite common for risk taking behaviour to increase in adolescents.  They might start to ponder the “meaning of life” or they may be so busy doing different activities they don’t stop to reflect. This can be a way of keeping their intense feelings under wraps if they are worried about emotional outbursts.  Teenagers may withdraw significantly but don’t push them, just remain there for them.

Of course, the school also provides a valuable resource. The routine is useful for all ages of child and they like the continuity and things that remain “normal”.We are always happy to help schools with extra support if they need it.

Anniversaries, birthdays and other special days can be particularly hard on the whole family. Some do not feel they can celebrate. It helps to try and plan these days. Prepare for it to be a challenge though. Put aside a special time of day to remember the person, to light a candle or to make something for the memory box or scrapbook. Some families choose to do this in the lead up to a big event rather than on the actual day. Children find this very hard as they naturally look forward to events like Christmas.

Activities that may help

  • Telling the story of what happened or how they are feeling by writing, drawing pictures, making a cartoon strip or writing poetry.  The key here is that they can express themselves, but the finished article can be put away, by them, when they are ready to do so.
  • Creating a memory box
  • Planting some seeds – maybe writing a special message  and placing it in the soil under the seeds as a permanent reminder.
  • Winston’s Wish website has a graffiti wall and a sky scape which can help
  • Creating a family tree

It is important to let them know that it is okay to experience the wide range of emotions – including being happy and enjoying life.