Helping Teens through Grief
By Jo-Ann Buckler-Dollins Posted on October 02 2009
Teens deal with grief differently than adults—and aren't as equipped to deal with it. Which is why youth workers need to understand this tough subject and learn how to help their students through it.
Several years ago, a 15-year-old girl from my church was brutally murdered. She was very involved in her church youth group. She was known for carrying her Bible with her to school and sharing her faith with her peers at every opportunity. She was an ideal role model for other youths, being committed to and having a close walk with God. She also had a gift for helping others through trauma and crisis—exactly what her death caused, sadly. The church was stunned and deeply grief-stricken by her passing. At the time of this tragedy, our church had no knowledge of grief recovery and had no support systems in place to aid those affected by grief. Her youth pastors cared for and supported surviving family members and friends the best way they knew how. But a little over a month after her death, they were finding it difficult and challenging to deal with the flood of varied emotions that hit them and those around them. Kids went from feeling depressed to feeling unsettled and heavily burdened.
I’ve since realized that most of us—youth workers included—aren’t educated about grief recovery. I believe the grieving process is among the least understood subjects in America today. We’re constantly barraged with death and violence in the news, movies, and on television, but when was the last time a grieving character received focused attention?
In Hollywood, time tends to heal all wounds—especially when there’s only 30 minutes to an hour (including commercials) for healing to occur.
So it’s not surprising, as our society reflects these attitudes, that we don’t know how to grieve. And few will escape this life without having to endure some degree of grief.
Teens are especially vulnerable in these times because they aren’t nearly as equipped to deal with grief as adults, and they tend to deal with grief differently. The combination of adolescence, trauma, and crisis is difficult for teens to understand and endure. So it’s important that youth workers become aware of how teens grieve—and how they can help them through the grieving process.
Breaking Down the Grief Process
Loss isn’t easily forgotten. And the circumstances don’t really matter—loss takes many forms, not just the death of loved ones. It can include divorce, leaving home, moving, changing a job, losing a job, childhood regrets, addictions, physical and mental abuse, retirement—even the death of a pet.
Ultimately, any grief circumstance can leave unresolved issues in our lives if it isn’t dealt with. We can tuck away unresolved feelings in our back pockets for a long time, sometimes for many years. But if we don’t allow the pain to surface, we take it with us throughout our lives. And its effects seep into relationships, the workplace, school, ministries—wherever we go.
One of the ways we can help the pain to get worked out is by giving ourselves permission to grieve (known as grief work). The grief process is a choice, and making that choice will go a long way to help grieving individuals recover and better understand their pain.
Understanding the grief process and what occurs during it is especially helpful at anniversaries. Some of the most common grief-triggering anniversaries are Father’s Day, Mother’s Day, birthdays, wedding anniversaries, Christmas, Thanksgiving, and especially the annual date of the event that caused the grief.
Anniversary dates are so powerful they can trigger memories of taste, sound, and sight. These memories often spark reactions such as emotional outbursts, disorganization, loneliness, depression, anguish, anger, sleep disorders, and physical changes.
The grieving process doesn’t necessarily follow in precise order and, in fact, the stages may overlap. Intensity, emphasis, and duration will vary according to the grieving person and the circumstance of the loss. An important thing to keep in mind is that the grieving process is very real to the person in grief—and sometimes isn’t understandable to those of us trying to help. Grief isn’t something we manufacture, it just happens. We have no control over our subconscious that brings about these memories.
Dealing with grief isn’t pleasant—especially when teens are in the middle of it. The grieving process is full of pain; it’s hard work. As much as we’d like to take away our students’ pain when loss occurs in their lives, we know all we can do is offer support.
But before tragedy happens, I urge you to consider offering them the kind of support that’s empowered by knowledge of the grieving process.
Points of Emphasis to Help Teens in Grief
- Grief recovery is a choice.
- Grief recovery is a growth process.
- Use available resources, such as grief-recovery support groups.
- Teens in grief must realize they need to take a stance in facing their future, both on a short-term and long-term basis.
- They often have little physical or emotional energy to do anything butgrieve. Encourage people helping teens in grief to assist in even the most minute tasks—but especially in making decisions.
- Let grieving teens know recovery isn't a place, a destination to be reached; it's a continual journey. A journey of hope, healing, and peace.
- Help them acknowledge their need for support from loved ones.
- They must invest themselves in practical, meaningful activities in order to bring about emotional healing.
- Encourage teens in grief to reach out to others so they put their hurt in perspective.
- They must not hurt themselves through bitterness. Encourage hope and release of their anger, pain, and frustrations.
- Teens in grief must keep in mind that many others have experienced grief as well. This is the grievers' common thread with humanity: They walk a lonely path, but they don't walk it alone.
Growth Ministries has just launched a support program aimed specifically at junior and senior high schoolers. It includes a combination of ongoing weekly support meetings—designed to encourage youths and adults to share and deal with grief together—and slightly more formal workshops designed to educate youths and adults about the grief process. (Contact info: 619/401-7477 or P.O. Box 191207, San Diego, CA 92159)