Whether it’s a beloved pet who dies, the death of your grandmother, or a breakup with a boyfriend, losing someone or something you care about is like drilling a tiny hole inside your heart: it’s a deep pain that never goes away and leaves a piece of you feeling empty. But it’s a pain that will ebb with time.

Losses that shatter our assumptions about the world around us are the most troublesome to cope with, says Mary Emswiler, co-founder of the Cove Center for Grieving Children in Connecticut. These might be the unexpected suicide of your best friend, or the death of a young sibling. And being an teen – the time in your life when you’re growing and changing, complicates emotions as well. “You are still figuring out who you are,” says Emswiler. “We figure out who we are by bouncing off adults and other peers. We try out different things. If a friend dies, then we don’t have that mirror to look at ourselves in. Adolescents grow in a lot of different ways. When a parent dies, for example, that takes a resource out of your life.”

On top of that, suffering a loss sometimes separates teens from their peers when they need their friends the most, Emswiler says.

“The trouble is that young grievers don’t feel like part of the group because they have had this experience that sets them apart. They are out of the mainstream,” she says.

Adolescents often have to experience loss in multiples, whether it’s moving to a new school or finding out parents are getting divorced. “There are an awful lot of losses that happen to teens and when they bunch up, that’s difficult for them because they don’t have time to process before the next shoe drops,” says Emswiler.

Often teens delay their mourning until their adult life, which can lead to trouble, says Dr. Alan Wolfelt of the Center for Loss and Life Transition in Colorado. “If you are openly emotional, people might accuse you of being out of control or not handling it well. It makes it hard to feel safe to mourn,” he says.

So how can grieving teens be helped?

Find a safe place to mourn, says Wolfelt.  “Teens need to grieve, but they don’t always feel like they have safe places to do that.”

Emswiler agrees, saying, “Kids need to feel safe after somebody dies, to maintain routines. If nobody talks with them about the death and the person who died and if they aren’t given the chance to figure it out cognitively and to make sense of what happens, that can complicate [the process].”

If you’ve recently lost a loved one, here are some tips on how to cope:

  • Know that it’s important to find someone you feel safe with
  • Acknowledge the reality of death
  • Embrace to the pain and suffering that comes with loss
  • Remember the person who died
  • Think about what you are going to do now
  • Search for meaning
  • Get ongoing support

And finally, Wolfelt says, teens need time to deal with death and their feelings. “Our culture gives the shortest time of mourning in the world, when in fact they are going to mourn in doses. Mourning doesn’t really discretely end at some linear point in time.”

Emswiler says the healthiest way for teens to cope is to find ways and places where they can express their grief; whether it be through words, art, poetry, or film just to name a few.

“Find places and ways,” he says. “Grief is like having a 24-hour bug and your stomach is really upset, and you feel like you are going to throw up, and you do but then you feel better. Getting it out really helps. Teens need to find places where they can do that safely and be heard and validated. Grief is a normal human experience, it just doesn’t feel like it at the moment.”

But remember, too, that it’s not healthy to grieve all the time.

“Teens need to also make sure they realize that it’s healthy to grieve and just do normal stuff. Go out and have fun—just because somebody died doesn’t mean you have to take on a full grief persona,” Emswiler says.
Last reviewed October 2014