Opening Your Heart To Your Grieving Teen

Each year thousands of young people experience loss. 1.2 million youth will lose a parent before the age of fifteen according to research conducted by Dr. Elizabeth Weller, Director of Ohio State University Hospitals. Grieving is a process that affects all family members. Often our teens and children are the forgotten mourners. All too often, adults are overcome with their own shock, sadness and sorrow to notice their children are grieving too. For teens and children, as adults, there is no magic wand in overcoming grief. It is a process, and it is as individual as the people who are going through it.

Grieving teens may experience many of the same emotions being experienced by grieving adults. Denial, anger, helplessness, sadness, loneliness and guilt are all common feelings. Teens typically feel that they and their friends are impervious to death and disease. When a death occurs, they begin to realize that death is part of life and could happen to anyone at any given moment and any given time.

The stages of grief are not linear. There will be peaks and valleys and inevitable bumps in the road. Shock, denial, regression, guilt, bargaining and finally acceptance are the myriad of emotions that are part of the healing process called grief.

What as a parent or caring adult can we do to help our teens as they mourn? There are many ways in which you can support your grieving teen. There is no right or wrong way to grieve. Love them unconditionally by accepting them with their pain. Don't diminish their feelings by dismissing them or overlooking them. First and foremost is to be available to them and to be an active listener. Really tune in to them and what they are saying to you. Listen with your heart. Don't be so quick to judge or offer suggestions; just be available to them in a supportive loving way. Be sensitive to the myriad of emotions they may be experiencing.

Adolescence is a fragile time for kids. They are no longer children, and they are not adults either. They are at the crossroads of leaving childhood behind and moving into to adulthood with all of its responsibilities and complications. This developmental period in a child's life is full of change. While many teens may physically appear to look like young men and young women, emotionally they may not be as mature as they appear to be. Often teens are expected to act "grown up" for their younger siblings. When a teen feels the responsibility for assuming a caregiver's role in the family they deny themselves their own permission to grieve. Teens need compassionate support while they work through this difficult time.

Often parents assume, since their teen doesn't wish to open up to them that they will seek solace in support from their peers. Unless a teen's friends have experienced a loss themselves, they could be unprepared to support their friend in their time of need. Peers may feel helpless in supporting their friend. This may result avoidance which leaves leaving the individual totally unsupported.

During adolescence, the teen begins the process of separation from their parents and family. A death of a sibling or parent can be extremely difficult during this awkward time. This is noticed especially when they are told they must "be strong" for the surviving parent or family members. This can impede their ability to heal. A feeling of guilt may also be present for a youth who loses a loved one during this distancing period of their adolescence. A teen may be left with a feeling of "unfinished business" and "lack of closure" with regard to their lost loved one or friend.

A teen that is having a particularly hard time with loss may:

  • Have difficulty sleeping
  • Loss of appetite resulting in loss of weight
  • Increased appetite resulting in dramatic weight gain
  • Overly anxious, restlessness or moody
  • Withdrawal from friends or family members
  • Lack of interest in school and school activities
  • Academic changes
  • Overt risk taking behaviors
  • Feeling overly guilty or resentful
  • Bullying or fighting
  • Inability to have fun
  • Self depreciating behaviors
  • Experimentation in drugs, alcohol or sex
  • Conceal their feelings
  • Over-achieving behaviors
  • Taking on adult role of caretaker to survivors
  • Try to take the place of the deceased

Watch for the above signs, which may clearly indicate that your teen's grief may becoming unhealthy. If he or she is experiencing any of the above symptoms, seeking the professional medical advice from your health care provider is advised.

As adults we need to support our teens through the grieving process. Teens need caring, compassionate adults who will guide them through the wide variety of emotions they will be feeling. Support groups are beneficial to the healing process, especially when they are peer led. Check with your local school, church or community center or check with a private therapist.

There are many ways parents can encourage their teen to heal. Be patient and realize your teen will heal when he is ready to. Encourage them to get out their emotions. Releasing emotions helps anyone deal with them more effectively and more quickly. One way parents can help their teen is to offer a safe, loving and supportive environment.

Another way to create a safe ,non-threatening, private place to express feelings is through the use of a journal. Writing and drawing have been proven as very therapeutic tools. Journals also provide a place to monitor their healing progress. It also serves as a connection to their special someone. Consistent writing helps teens get clearer on who they are and it may reveal to them their own unique to heal and move forward. Writing allows grieving teens to access the feelings and thoughts that reside in their subconscious minds. Journals also provide teens with a place to revisit their emotions, which is so valuable in the grieving process.

How To Start

There is no right way or wrong way to keep a journal. Keeping a journal is easy. You just need paper, or a notebook and a comfortable pen or colored markers or you can use the computer. Here are some tips to get you started.

  • Write when you have uninterrupted time
  • Write for about fifteen to twenty minutes daily
  • Use a comfortable writing tool
  • Choose a comfortable place to write
  • Try to write at the same time everyday
  • Date your entries
  • Don't judge your writing. Don't worry about grammar, spelling, punctuation or sounding "just right." The point is to write about what's on your mind and in your heart.
  • Accept your writing and write from within. Don't be a critic.
  • Don't try to write a story or a novel
  • Trust your intuitive heart, the words will come
  • Be gentle with yourself
  • As you begin to write close your eyes and take a moment to get centered
  • Begin with a deep breath
  • If you get stuck begin doodling and see where that takes you
  • Experiment, play, be open to where your heart takes you in your writing

Journal Topics For Grieving Teens

  • Write a letter to your special someone who has died.
  • Write about a special memory of your special someone.
  • Write about what you wish you'd done or not done.
  • Write about the things you wish you'd said or not said.
  • Write about what you miss most about your special someone.
  • Write about an alter or memorial you can design for your special someone and then create it.

Experiencing a loss can be quite frightening for children no matter what their age. They must address their fearful feelings until they come to their own understanding. Listen to a their fears and offer reassurance. While grieving, some will regress. Others may attempt to over-achieve and others may withdraw or express anger. All teens should be encouraged to grieve in their own way. As facilitators of the grieving process, parents need to remember the best gift they can give their child is the permission to grieve and the help to discover the healing process.

About the Author:
Katherine Dorn Zotovich, author of "Good Grief For Kids" and "My Memory Maker", is a veteran educator with over twenty-five years experience. She holds her Masters Degree in Education and a Pupil Personnel Services Credential with specialization in School Counseling. She has been recognized as a mentor teacher. She is a member of the Alzheimer's Association and frequent speaker at caregiver workshops. Mrs. Zotovich is a freelance writer for national magazines and Internet web sites. She has drawn upon her experience as a veteran caregiver, her counseling background and her literacy expertise to create journals that compassionately encourage children to express their feelings. She lives with her husband and three children on the Central California Coast.

For more information on how to keep a journal or for information about "Good Grief For Kids" and "My Memory Maker", contact:
Journal Keepers Publishing
P.O. Box 6173
Los Osos, CA 93402
(805) 528-8722

Back To Top
More Lesson Plans