Teenage grief can be a lonely place leaving teenagers to feel isolated and struggling to feel normal despite their pain. Loss shakes the very foundation teens have grown to trust and stand on. Typically teenagers do not fear death and live with a false sense of invincibility until they lose someone. Suddenly, the security blanket of youth shatters and life is never the same.
Grief will sometimes push teens into a dark and lonely corner of what once felt like a safe and protected world. No one knows what to do or what to say and as a result, teenagers feel alone. Consequently, teens suffer in silence and feel like no one understands how they feel. Adults feel helpless as they watch their kids struggle and slowly slip away. In truth, teenage grief is complicated.
Grief is hard regardless of age but it is important to recognize that teenage grief can be especially difficult. Adolescence is filled with ups and downs. Loss can complicate a teenager’s world even more and in keeping that in mind, adults need to watch for the red flags.
Loss found its way into my life just two months after my 17th birthday. My best friend was killed in a tragic car accident and as a result, the life I loved disappeared. I became a member of a club that no one wants to join; the grief club. Life changed forever and I will never forget the moment my mother told me that my friend had died. My heart shattered into a million pieces and for me, nothing would ever be the same.
It was the October of our senior year and like most seniors, we were having the time of our lives. Life was good and therefore, our main focus was having fun and what to wear to the football game. Dreams of the future and graduation day filled our hearts and our minds. Life was simple, and despite typical teenage challenges, it was an exciting and happy time.
Suddenly, life changed in one cruel and twisted moment. Death had come knocking and without hesitation it had ripped apart the security I had always known. Dreams were shattered and pieces of my coveted childhood innocence was simply and without question, gone.
Darkness filled my days and life became hollow and empty. I felt alone and truly believed that no one understood my sadness or deep pain. Guilt accompanied me everywhere I went and regardless of what I did. How could I possibly laugh or have fun when my friend was dead? There was no more joy and regardless of our senior year, I did not believe I would find happiness again. My heart ached yet there were times I felt pressured to suck it up and pretend like everything was okay. I worried that my classmates would judge me and think something was wrong with me.
Dreams turned into nightmares and while I tried to think of the good times, I could not push the horrific images of mangled cars out of my head. Sleep was difficult and I would spend hours crying in my room. Obviously, I went to school and I tried to live my life, but nothing felt normal. So in an effort to numb my pain, I partied, listened to dark music or would lay on the ground next to his grave.
Thankfully, I had friends that tried to console me and even shared in some of this grief but most of the time I felt alone and hid my pain. I didn’t want to talk to my parents and I certainly did not trust that they understood how I was feeling nor could they help me.
Obviously, things were spinning out of control and in truth, I was not okay. My parents were worried and grief was consuming my life. In essence, the death of my friend was destroying me and at times, I felt like I could not breathe.
For fear that they were losing me, my parents desperately searched for answers and eventually, took me on a trip to Florida. In an effort to heal, I spent hours writing poetry and walking on the beach. For the first time in weeks, I slept, laughed without guilt and felt a little bit of peace. The road to healing was long but it was a start.
In the end, the fog cleared and I was able to slowly find my way back to living life and enjoying my senior year. Losing my friend had forever changed me and life would never be the same. However, I learned that life goes on and while it was different, I could find happiness again. It took a long time and even years later, the smallest trigger would rip the wound open all over again. But, I had survived and I knew I would be okay. There is wisdom in the wounds and it is because of some of those wounds that I became the person I am today.
Teenage grief is scary and quite honestly, it can lead a vulnerable young person to a dark and isolated place. I shared this personal loss because I want others to know that there is hope even when it feels like everything is lost. There are things that adults can do to help teenagers when they are grieving and struggling to heal a broken heart.
Friends are important.
Teens that are grieving will often shut down and do not want to talk. Consequently, adults worry and will sometimes try to force teenagers to talk about their grief. At times teens will pull away from adults and instead will seek refuge with their peers. That is okay as long as the teen is talking and finding an outlet with their friends. Complete isolation or a complete loss of interest in friends or activities is a red flag.
Language is key.
Adults want to help grieving teens but often struggle with what to say. It is critical that adults pay attention to what they say and how they say it. Society tries to dictate time limits on grief and most people have come to believe that grief should not last too long. Try not to minimize a teen’s feelings with statements that include, “things will get better” or “you need to get out and have some fun”. Keep it simple and show them that you care. Check in once in a while and instead ask things like, “how are you” or “do you want to talk about anything”. Sometimes it is best to say nothing at all and to simply just be there.
There are no rules when it comes to grief.
There are no timelines when it comes to grief and there are no right or wrong ways to grieve. Grief is personal regardless of the age and teens need to feel comfortable in their grief. Teens need to feel normal yet grieving often makes people feel like they are different from others. It is important that teens understand that grieving is completely normal and that it is okay to grieve. Support them and listen to them. Don’t put pressure on teenagers to grieve in a specific way or to rush through their grief. Avoid controlling their grief or leading them in the way they grieve. Teenagers need to feel like they are independent and have some control.
Promote things that heal. Teens often find healing in doing. One group of teens made t-shirts with their teammates hockey number and honored him at an opening game. Writing is healing. Getting together with friends brings comfort and creates a bond. Exercise is good for the stress that accompanies grief. Surrounding a teen with positive things and people can help to reboot positivity to the teen’s hurting heart and reduce his or her pain. Teens can benefit from staying busy but they also need time to relax, do nothing, cry when needed or to just be alone.
Teens may engage in behaviors that make things worse.
Teenagers are hovering between adulthood yet they still need to feel safe and secure with their parents. Loss and grief can leave a teenager feeling confused and lost. They may try to act cool and as if nothing is wrong but in reality, everything is wrong. Struggling, teens may seek out things to distract them from and numb out from the pain. Adults should watch out for an increase in risk-taking behaviors including sex, drugs and alcohol. Teenagers may have difficulty with relationships, stop caring about school and other activities they used to enjoy. Sleep patterns may be disrupted and eating habits may change. Sometimes teenagers will obsess about the loss. In short, depression and anxiety can become a threat to a grieving teen.
There is help if needed.
If a teenager exhibits behaviors that are worrisome or you are concerned about the teen’s well-being, there are professionals that can help. Counselors and clergy can connect a teen with valuable resources. Grief groups offer a great outlet for teenagers and can create a safe environment for a teen to express how they feel. Teenagers need to grieve and feel emotions without feeling judged. Resources that allow a teen to grieve freely and honestly are important to healing a broken heart. Parents can be a great resource but remember, sometimes teens need to talk with someone outside of their own family.
There are several great resources available to help with the grieving process including: https://www.dougy.org/grief-resources/help-for-teens/
In all honesty, there were times that I did not think I would feel better when my friend died and there were days I didn’t want to. I felt guilty, sad, angry, confused, alone and I felt like my entire world had fallen apart. I will never forget how bad my heart hurt. Looking back, my world did fall apart; for a while. Loss was hard and my life changed but loss also taught me that there is love, happiness and life on the other side of grief. Loss hurts really bad and for a teenager it can feel like life has come to an end. Life will change and it will be different but teens need to have faith that they can find happiness again and it is possible to heal a broken heart.
In peace and with love,