Supporting Young People Through Loss

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No one ever really teaches us how to grieve; it’s something we learn as it happens to us. However, if your child or teen is experiencing loss, you want to help them to understand it, sit with it and most of all, make peace with it.

Unfortunately, even though grief is not something any of us want to experience, grief among young people is far more common than we may think.

In the UK 78% of 11-16 year-olds have experienced the death of a close friend or relative. Loss is also something that doesn’t have to be a death, it can mean moving house, changing school, or having a falling out with a friend. Despite the prevalence of grief in young people there is still uncertainty about how to help young people in times of loss. Fortunately, we have some useful advice and information on how to give your child or teen the best support possible.

Defining Grief

To understand grief in teens, it is essential to understand what it is. This is quite a heavy topic but also a great thing to be able to talk about – especially if you are supporting a teenager who is struggling with the feelings that come with grief.

Grief is defined as the emotion felt when a person goes through significant loss. While it is often used in the context of death it can also refer to anything that a person can mourn. Some children will experience changes in family structure such as moving in with grandparents, others may stop being able to do something they love due to an accident or because of financial reasons. Whatever it might be, it is important to support young people through it.

Understanding Death as a Teen

Children often have a limited idea of what death is and what it might mean. However, as they grow older they begin to develop a greater understanding of the finality of death. With this comes a lot of confused emotions that go beyond sadness and move into the realms of fear and existentialism. Parents may try to sugar-coat death so as to avoid any more upset in the person they care most about. However, it can be beneficial to have frank discussions about death; what it means, what we know and even what we don’t.

Young people are often shielded from death and yet the reality is that many young people will experience bereavement. Every year in the UK over 44,000 children and young people suffer the loss of a parent. Furthermore, it is estimated that by age 16 around 4.7% of young people will be bereaved of one or more parents. By making sure that teens are well informed and can have conversations about death we can enable them to grieve in healthy mindful ways.

Grieving in Different Cultures

All around the world, there are different ways for people to grieve. The rituals that coincide with death can be a way for communities to honour their loved ones and start the process of healing. Giving people – especially young people – the chance to feel close to a loved one through their cultural traditions can be a great gift.

Cultural differences in grieving are largely influenced by religion, national traditions, and specific family customs. This might mean avoiding certain colours, holding events for friends and loved ones or even eating certain food. In China, people don’t wear red while grieving as it is seen as too happy. Meanwhile, in Egypt families wear black, serve black coffee and sometimes even paint their windows black. Back in the UK we have a similar tradition of wearing black for the funeral.

It is a comfort to know that despite slight variations in grieving there is some overlap. These similarities reveal that the human experience of love and loss is universal.

The Grief of Change

While most people understand grief as inextricable from death, the reality is slightly more complicated. Grief is an emotion that can be experienced by people who have never known death. This is because grief is not only the loss of a person, it can also be the loss of a place, time, or emotion. 

Those who have gone through grief will understand the feeling of having to live a ‘new normal’. There is often a mismatch between the life you expected and the reality of living after a loss. When a teen is not grieving the death of a person their loss does not always come with the same support. If a parent leaves there is no funeral or opportunity to commemorate their life. Instead, many emotions remain bottled up and the drastic change might appear to go unnoticed.

Grief Doesn’t Come Alone

When a young person goes through grief it is hard for them to make sense of it all. The lack of control over such a significant change is coupled with the fear that misfortunes may continue. After all, if something has happened once, who’s to say it won’t happen again?

Because of the fears that come with grief it is essential to ensure that a young person is provided with safe surroundings. Instability fuels anxiety and can make it difficult for teens to cope with loss. Being available, consistent and empathetic is the best way to help the young people in your life with all the troubles and anxieties that come hand in hand with grief.

Signs that Your Teen is Struggling with Grief

Grief can manifest as a variety of different issues and so the emotions that coincide with loss can be hard to pinpoint or articulate. Signifiers of grief in young people include:

  • Changes in sleeping or eating patterns that continue for several months
  • Thoughts of suicide or a fixation on death
  • Feeling overwhelmed by social, family or academic/work pressures
  • Dramatic changes in behaviour
  • Isolation from friends & family
  • Disinterest in appearance or personal hygiene
  • Depression or high levels of anxiety
  • Drug use
  • Lack of motivation, skipping classes or taking regular sick days

If you notice these changes alongside a loss, it is a sign that your teen needs support. Although grief can be a horrible emotion, it shows that a person cared. Despite the fact that these behaviours are worrying they are also testament to the love and emotional capacity of your teen. While it’s not always easy to have open channels of communication with your teen, it is some comfort to know that these behaviours come from a place of love.

How Can I Help My Teen Through Grief?

The best thing to do for a teen going through grief is to ensure constant love, nurture and opportunities to express themselves. However, for some young people struggling with loss, this may not be enough. If certain behaviours seem to be escalating, it might be necessary to seek professional help. 

At The Wave we are aware of the way in which change can be a source of loss. We are committed to doing our utmost to support young people with any struggles they might be facing. Our experts can support your teen and help them to articulate the variety of complex emotions that come with grief. These can include fear, existentialism and even lows in confidence and self-esteem. Grief can show itself in many ways, so our experts are dedicated to helping teens who are experiencing loss.

Fiona - The Wave Clinic

Fiona Yassin is the founder and clinical director at The Wave Clinic. She is a U.K. and International registered Psychotherapist and Accredited Clinical Supervisor (U.K. and UNCG).

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