Managing Teen Grief and Mourning: A Guide for Parents

Teens grieve much the same way adults do but because their brains are not fully developed, adults do well to be aware of cognitive differences. And, each teen is unique!

Healthy behaviors as grief responses:

  • talking about grief with real friends

  • writing about their grief

  • creating art

  • expressing emotion rather than holding it in

Unhealthy grief responses (listed below) may cause long-term problems:

  • promiscuity
  • antisocial behavior
  • alcohol and drugs

Teens may also withdraw from social activities and sleep too much, but this normal behavior can become problematic if prolonged.

Below are points from The Dougy Center’s (TDC) Six Basic Principles of Teen Grief:

  • Grieving is the teen’s natural reaction to a death.

  • However, to teens grieving does not feel natural because they cannot control the emotions, thoughts, or physical feelings that come with a death. Feeling out of control is often a part of grief that overwhelms or frightens some teens.
  • Many teens may resist and reject grieving out of emotional self-protection. If we can teach them acceptance, it will allow them to do their grief work.
  • Each teen’s grieving experience is unique.
  • Teens grieve for different lengths of time and express a wide spectrum of emotions.
  • Grief is a process in which physical sensations, emotions, thoughts, and behaviors occur in response to death.
  • Sadness and crying may be an expression of grief for one teen, while another may respond with humor and laughter. Another may be silent.
  • Grief stages do not happen in a set sequence, and some stages may not occur until some future time.
  • There are no “right” and “wrong” ways to grieve.
  • Sometimes adults express strong opinions about “right” or “wrong” ways to grieve. But, there is no correct way to grieve. Coping with a death does not follow a simple pattern.
  • Every death is unique.
  • Teen grief differs according to their personality and the particular relationship they had with the deceased.
  • For teens, peer relationships are primary. The death or loss of a boyfriend or girlfriend may seem to affect them more than the death of a sibling or grandparent.
  • If a parent was abusive and a non-family member did not know it, they might be shocked if the child responded with happiness.
  • Grief is ongoing.
  • Grief never ends but changes in intensity, akin to the constantly shifting tides of the ocean, which range from calm, low tides to raging high tides that change with the seasons and the years.

Teens at TDC developed the following Bill of Rights (it does not represent “official” policies of TDC):

A grieving teen has the right….
...to know the truth about the death, the deceased, and the circumstances.
...to have questions answered honestly.
...to be heard with dignity and respect.
...to be silent and not tell you her/his grief emotions and thoughts.
...to not agree with your perceptions and conclusions.
...to see the person who died and the place of the death.
...to grieve any way she/he wants without hurting self or others.
...to feel all the feelings and to think all the thoughts of his/her own unique grief.
...to not have to follow the “Stages of Grief” as outlined in a high school health book.
...to grieve in one’s own unique, individual way without censorship.
...to be angry at death, at the person who died, at God, at self, and at others.
...to have his/her own theological and philosophical beliefs about life and death.
...to be involved in the decisions about the rituals related to the death.
...to not be taken advantage of in this vulnerable mourning condition and circumstances.
...to have guilt about how he/she could have intervened to stop the death.

We’ll stop here until next time. If any of you have individual questions, send them to Brooke at Nā Keiki O Emalia and she’ll get them to me.

Aloha nui, and God bless,

John M. Briley, MD, Pediatrics