when a teenager grieves

This has been an unexpectedly difficult week for so many folks in the Fort Worth area, namely the Fort Worth Christian school. Over the weekend one of their freshman boys drowned at one of our area lakes. On so many levels this is a heartbreaking story because not only did a family lose their son, but a community of friends, family, and classmates had a loved one ripped from their life without notice.

In my new position at Teen Lifeline sometimes we are called upon to assist schools in crisis situations and because of our past relationship with FWC they called upon us and some youth ministers in the area to come and do some immediate grief counseling. Needless to say this is a sobering task that draws a person into the vast unknown of a teenager’s grief. So often the immediate grief of the loss will then dredge up past pains and heartbreaks they have either ignored or repressed. As someone called to aid in the grieving process, it is hard to know what to say or do for teenagers in this spot.

I have many things I want to say about this (which I plan to in the coming weeks), but today I want to reflect on how we serve teenagers in these situations. Often when tragic times come children and teenagers are inadvertently overlooked in the grieving process. And the reason is really simple: grief manifests itself different in the young than the old. And often in our haste to “fix” people in grief (often because we are unwilling to listen or are genuinely uncomfortable with grief) we will spend more time imparting wisdom or trying to tell the griever how to feel.

And with teenagers, it is sometimes much more complicated. Adolescents, especially those in the “mid-adolescent” category (age 14-18) tend to be a mess of emotions and rationalities on a normal day. When you heap grief on top of of all of the confusion of adolescence, it can be hard to discern what is grief and what else is at play. Some teens will laugh their way through it, cry at any moment, or even block it all out. But make no mistake: they are hurting.

And as adults who are charged with the care teenagers hearts we have a responsibility to tend to the grieving teen. Here are some highlights of a one-page handout on handling teenage grief that I think will be really helpful.

  1. Spend time with your grieving teen not expecting anything in return. That is, don’t expect a “good cry” or any profound breakthrough. Especially in the acute stages of grief, let them respond how they are comfortable.
  2. Avoid stock answers or responses such as: “Don’t cry”, or “It’s God’s will”, or “Be thankful that”. These trite answers do more for the comforter than the griever. Let your words be few.
  3. Find some creative outlets for the teenager to express their emotions. While anger, outbursts, frustration, and helplessness are normal emotions, find some ways for the grieving teenager to express these emotions constructively. Some ideas are poetry, art, music, or physical activity.
  4. Don’t be afraid to remember. I believe an impulse for for the consoler is to avoid the topic of loss in order to not bring up any undue pain. However it is okay to ask questions about the loss and give them permission and safety to reflect.

For the full sheet click here.

One final note: There are more teenagers grieving loss than we will ever know. There could be a loss of a mother\father to divorce or another broken relationship – maybe even a major disappointment at school. In other words, grieving happens outside of death or tragedy. We have eyes to see and ears to hear.

How have you experienced grief with teenagers?

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