When teenagers experience the loss of a fellow student or teammate, it is a traumatic event felt throughout the community. Such traumatic events usually trigger an onslaught of emotions and reactions, but everybody handles these feelings differently. The way teenagers respond to the loss depends on many factors including the degree to which they knew the person who died, the manner in which that person died, their physical proximity to any accident or event related to the person’s death, their past experience with death or with losing a loved one, and an array of other personal factors unique to each teenager.
Despite individual differences, all grief is painful, and like all other pain, the first reaction may be a feeling of numbness as if one were in shock. While there are many common reactions to grief that may follow, there is no right or wrong way to grieve, so anything goes. Generally speaking, adolescents tend to search for the meaning of life, which includes death. They will have many “why” questions, many of which have no concrete answers. Often, a teenager’s emotional response to death will be very intense, and issues of unresolved grief will likely emerge. This can include a sense of loss from personal experiences such as divorce, or the death, deployment, or incarceration of a loved one. If the loss is a teenager’s very first encounter with death, he or she may feel confused and conflicted about how they ‘should’ or ‘should not’ process the event.
The Healing Process
A major part of the healing process is allowing oneself to experience the intense emotions associated with the pain of grief. The emotions typically experienced include anger, guilt, and depression. Parents and other adults can help teenagers by providing a safe and supportive environment, reassuring them that their reaction is a normal reaction to abnormal stress, and helping the teenager discharge any pent-up emotions and pain.
Research suggests that there are five stages to the healing process:
- Denial and isolation
The reality is that people may not experience them in any particular order, and may move back and forth among stages. Like anyone else, a teenager may feel barraged by many different thoughts and emotions all at once. In the beginning, they may feel overwhelmed and pre-occupied by negative emotion most of the time. Gradually these feelings subside and they will start to experience longer periods of time when they are not burdened by their grief. Parents can provide support by patiently and non-judgmentally accepting their feelings. Bereavement groups with other teenagers can also facilitate this process by allowing them to express their emotion, relate to others, and receive support. In some cases, a teenager may continue to struggle. The following information can help determine if a teenager’s reaction to grief goes beyond what would normally be expected.
Some Symptoms of Post-Traumatic Stress:
- Recurrent distressing memories of the traumatic event
- Recurrent nightmares about the traumatic event
- Re-experiencing the traumatic event (flashbacks)
- Avoidance of distressing memories or feelings associated with the event
- Avoidance of people, places, activities, etc. associated with the event
- Exaggerated negative beliefs about oneself or others (e.g. “I am bad”)
- Blaming oneself or others for the traumatic event
- Persistent negative emotional state (e.g. fear, horror, anger, guilt, shame)
- Decreased interest in previously enjoyed activities
- Feelings of detachment from others
- Inability to experience positive emotions
- Significant increase in irritable behavior or angry outbursts
- Reckless or self-destructive behavior
- Hypervigilance (extreme sensitivity to potential threats)
- Exaggerated startle response
- Problems wit concentration
- Sleep disturbance (difficulty falling or staying asleep)
If any of these symptoms last more than a month and cause significant distress to your teenager or impair their school or social functioning, it is important to connect them with additional support. A school or outside counselor is always a good place to start!
Other Indicators that a Teenager Might Need Counseling:
- A teenager who has experienced another recent loss or trauma
- A teenager who has made suicide attempts or who makes suicidal statements
- A teenager who had a close relationship with the deceased student but pretends that absolutely nothing has happened and continues to do so for an extended period of time
- A teenager whose schoolwork takes a dramatic decline or who develops a phobic fear of school or other activities
- A teenager whose behavior changes significantly over a long period of time
- A teenager who demonstrates a continual preoccupation with death
Please feel free to comment on your experiences supporting teenagers through the grieving process.