Experiencing Grief as a Teenager
Unfortunately for too many teenagers, death and the resulting grief are part of everyday life.
By the end of high school, 5 percent of today’s students will have lost one of their parents by the end of high school, and 20 percent will have experienced the death of someone close by age 18. When surveyed, 90% say they have experienced the death of a loved one.¹ From 2010 to mid-2018, more than 170 U.S. students were killed in school shootings².
Common Reactions of Grieving Teens
Grief is as unique as the people who experience it, but some reactions to grief are universal and considered normal or typical. Most teens who experience the death of a loved one will exhibit some of the following behaviors or feelings:
- Heaviness in the chest or tightness in the throat.
- An empty feeling in the stomach and a loss of appetite.
- Guilt over something said or done, or something left unsaid or undone.
- Anger and lashing out at others, sometimes at any time for no 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 and simultaneous difficulty concentrating on a task at hand.
- 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 a sensation of "seeing" the deceased out of the corner of their eye.
- Talking to pictures.
- Conversing 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 sadness 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 or antisocial or high-risk behaviors.
The Ebb and Flow of Grief
Grief comes and goes. It is not something teens “get over,” but something they 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, either through memories or what-if contemplation. 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 they can be particularly turbulent for teens who have experienced the death of a relative or friend. Like the changing seasons, the grief these teens experience will be ongoing and ever-changing as they grow into adulthood.