Young People and Grief
The grieving process is a normal, natural and healing result of loss. Guilt, anxiety, anger, fears, and sadness may be universal, and the expression of these emotions may vary from day to day. Helping a young person and yourself through a difficult time may often feel overwhelming, however, knowledge of common reactions to loss may help you recognize and address grief.
Possible Grief Reactions
- Aggression/acting out – starting fights, outburst of temper, drop in grades, change of peer affiliation.
- Explosive emotions – gentle tears, wrenching sobs, extremes in behavior.
- Physiological changes – fatigue, trouble sleeping, lack of appetite, headaches and stomach pains.
- Idealization of the deceased.
- Sadness/emptiness/withdrawal – overwhelmed by feelings of loss when they realize the person is not coming back; feels extremely vulnerable.
- Guilt/self-blame – “if only….”, “why didn’t I….” feels responsible for the loss, seeks self-punishment.
- Disorganization – restless, unable to concentrate, uncontrollable tears, difficulty focusing.
- Relief – natural feeling after long illness, can be form of numbness, may think they are the only one who feels so guilty.
- Lack of feelings – protection from pain, can be a form of numbness, may be difficult to admit and may feel general guilt.
How to Help a Person Experiencing Grief
- Use the terms “died/dead/death” rather than phrases like “passed away” or “taken from us.” Give an honest explanation for the person’s death, avoiding clichés or easy answers. Straightforward, gentle use of the words helps a person confront the reality of the death.
- Explain and accept that everyone has different reactions to death at different times. The reaction might not hit until the funeral or weeks later.
- Reassure the young person that his/her grief feelings are normal. There is no “right” way to react to a loss. Give permission to cry. Let them know it’s okay not to cry if the young person does not typically react that way.
- Permit or encourage the young person to talk about a person who has died, both at the moment of loss, and especially after the funeral. This is a vital part of the healing process. It is best not to protect the person from this first step of acceptance and healing.
Do not attempt to minimize the loss or take the pain away. Phrases like “Don’t worry, it will be okay,” “he/she had a good life,” or “he/she is out of pain,” are not helpful. Grief is painful. There must be pain before there can be acceptance and healing. It is very difficult to do but most helpful to acknowledge the person’s pain and permit them to live with it without trying to take it away or make it ‘better’.