Whether the death is of a parent who didn't return from war or a classmate killed in a car crash, teens are likely to feel emotions associated with grief very intensely, but they may lack the coping skills that adults have. Helping adolescents work through the loss of someone close can be especially difficult for family members and friends who are supporting them.
Grieving teenagers may respond to the loss with any combination of these feelings: sadness and depression, fear and anxiety, anger and irritability or confusion. You may notice that they are withdrawn, behaving recklessly, having difficulty sleeping, struggling at school or showing a new interest in death. As a parent, relative, or friend, your support and understanding will be needed, even if you're also grieving.
Ways to help
Adolescents can be difficult to relate to under normal circumstances. Their typical ways of interacting are likely to intensify when they're coping with a loss. Regardless of how they may be reacting, keep in mind that frequent interaction with family and friends during this period is an important part of their healing process. Here are some tips:
Accept the teen's expressions of grief, whatever they may be. It's not a good idea to try to tell teens what they should be feeling or when their pain will subside. The experience of grief is very individual.
Allow the teen to talk about the person who died as much and as often as he or she wants to. Be sure to do more listening than talking, and be patient if it becomes repetitive. It often takes time and a lot of talk to come to terms with what has happened. And don't hesitate to bring up the deceased person's name for fear that the teen will be reminded of his or her pain.
Don't be afraid to let your own feelings show. Allowing teens to see you cry or express your feelings in other ways may make it easier for them to express their own emotions.
Encourage the teen to be patient. Tell the teen to avoid imposing self-judgments about how they should be feeling or behaving. Reassure your teen that a large range of feelings, even feelings that may seem strange or unexpected, is actually normal.
Be very careful about how you explain the death. It's not a good idea to say that the person's death was God's will or to remind the teen if the person's behavior was to blame. Dwelling on why someone died is not likely to be helpful because it doesn't alleviate the pain of the loss.
Avoid placing new expectations on the teen too soon. For example, it's best not to tell your son that he's the man of the family after his father's death because it will impose additional pressure when he's already under stress.
Be alert to signs of acute mental health problems. Severe withdrawal, dangerous acting out or the warning signs of suicide are all reasons to seek professional help as soon as possible. Take your child to your primary health care provider or call Military OneSource at 800-342-9647 for assistance.
Where to find support
Grief counseling is often advised for individuals suffering from the loss of someone close. Most school systems are prepared to help students deal with losses. Make sure the teen's school knows about the loss and find out if they offer grief counseling services.
Many communities around the country have support groups and grief camps for young people coping with the death of a loved one. Some of these programs are specifically for kids who lost a loved one in the military. Military OneSource or your installation Family Service Center can help you find out about grief support programs available in your area.
The Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivors provides a grief camp for children. Each year several hundred children and siblings of deceased service members come together at Camp Good Grief with their counselors and mentors to share feelings and have fun. TAPS also provides many other services for survivors including online peer support groups, a hotline (800-959-8277), and information and resources for people coping with the loss of someone in the military.