Young people are already coping with lots of stresses in their life, such as their changing hormones and important exams - so dealing with the death of someone they love can be particularly hard. It's important to make sure that they're getting the support they need.
Young people are in the process of changing from children into adults. Some will be more and some will be less grown up than others the same the age. Some can be quite adult-like, and some can be quite child-like. And, of course, they can move between the two.
Like adults, how young people respond to and cope with the death of someone special to them is completely unique to each individual.
Some things to be aware of as you support a young person are:
Identity, dependence and independence
Adolescence is a time of rebellion and self-absorption. Teenagers are at a stage in their development where they are trying to find their own identity. They are beginning to separate from their parents or carers and trying to assert their own independence and control. Family relationships and beliefs can be challenged - and a significant bereavement at this time can cause major upheaval and threat to them.
Feelings of guilt, regret and anger
Young people may experience strong feelings of regret and anger following the death of a special person. Feelings of anger may be stronger if they feel that they weren’t able to say goodbye, or if choices were taken away from them. There may also be feelings of guilt if they themselves decided not to visit or say goodbye. You need to reassure them that nothing they did or said caused this to happen, and there was nothing they could have done to change things.
If an adolescent feels that they didn’t get to say what they wanted before someone died, you might suggest they write a letter, poem or song to the person. They can decide what they wish to do with this once they have written it.
The ritual of saying goodbye is important
It’s important to give young people the choice whether to attend the funeral or not. Funerals are often family events and they may feel excluded and isolated if they didn't get the choice to attend - and that they have missed the opportunity to say goodbye. It’s ok to be happy, laugh and have fun: It’s important that young people know it’s ok to be happy, laugh and have fun and not to feel guilty when someone has died. This doesn’t mean that they have forgotten the person. Their grief is just the same, however, their life is growing around their grief and that’s perfectly ok.
Taking on the role of the dead parent or carer
Young people may try to step into the role of a parent or carer who has died. This could be because they feel that there is an expectation on them to do so or, because they have been told that they should. Either way, you should try to stop them from doing this. They may also be anxious about financial issues or secondary losses, such as having to move house or change schools. Encourage them to talk about these anxieties, either with you or another trusted adult.
Resentment and guilt
Young people may feel resentful that their lives have been disturbed by the illness or death, and this can cause intense feelings of guilt. If they have a difficult relationship with the surviving parent, they may even feel that the wrong parent or carer has died - and their anger can be channelled at the surviving parent or carer. Encouraging the young person to identify someone they can talk to about these feelings is important.
Peers can be supportive but aren’t always enough
Often young people are at a stage in their lives where they talk to their parents or carers less, and seek support and talk more to their friends. Young people can be very supportive when one of their friends is coping with bereavement. However, even friends who are supportive can quickly move on to the ‘next big thing’ or issue in their own lives, forgetting that their friend is still grieving and still needs support. This can leave the teenager feeling very isolated.
Rejection by their peers
Young people may have very genuine fears of being rejected by their peers following a death. As a result, they may play down their grief to avoid being perceived as being different. They may sense that death is not only frightening but also embarrassing for their peers and therefore avoid talking about it - which again can leave them feeling very isolated at a time when they most need support.
Young people need someone they trust to talk to
Sometimes, they may not feel able to talk to you. If so, there might be an adult friend, relative or teacher that they trust and feel able to talk to instead. If you cry when you have these kinds of conversations, let the young person know that they haven’t made you cry - it’s because you are upset about losing someone special to you and tears and sadness are a normal part of grieving.
Keeping and sharing memories is important
When someone first dies you may find your memories of them are dominated by the end of their life. However, over time happier memories will become stronger again. It helps young people – and adults too – to talk about the person who has died and share memories with family members. Remember them as a whole person, the good as well as the not so good. Memory books and memory boxes can be a lovely way of remembering. It can be wonderful if the person who has died was a part of creating it. You can keep adding to the memory box. For example, the young person could put in a medal they won on sports day or a photo from their birthday party – as a way of continuing the bond and sharing things with the special person after they’ve died.
Me and my son aren't as close as we used to be - he's just shutting everyone out. But I am here for him when he's ready.
Young people who are grieving can take more risks
Young people may seek other ways to control or numb emotions that become too intense. This could include drinking alcohol or taking drugs. They can sometimes take more risks or put themselves in situations where they are vulnerable.
- They may even feel that they want to harm themselves.
- They don’t want to be told off or told what to do.
- They need someone they can trust and be honest with without feeling judged. This might be a parent, carer, or teacher. All teachers are trained in how to look for vulnerable students and how to respond if a young person tells them about risky behaviours. Sometimes more specialist support from a bereavement counsellor may be more beneficial.
You can contact your GP, Cruse Bereavement Care or your local hospice for support if you are worried.
Watch for signs of depression
Young people can experience the same signs of depression as adults - they may feel low in mood, become withdrawn, be less interested in seeing their friends, or doing other activities. This can be a normal part of the grief process. If it goes on for a long time, or if you are worried, speak to your GP about your concerns and about getting support.
Let the young person take their time to grieve
There are no rules for how long it is ‘normal’ to grieve. Every adult, young person and child is different. Young people re-visit their grief at key stages or points of change in their life, such as when they start university. Special days, such as birthdays, Fathers’ Days and Christmas, and anniversaries can also be particularly hard. Re-visiting their grief at these times is something that lots of people continue to experience once they become adults. It may return at events like getting married or having a child.
Schools can support young people
The person at school who knows the young person best is their form tutor - they will see them every day, and often moves with the same class as they move up the school. It may be that this teacher is someone your teenager trusts and feels comfortable to speak to. The Head of Year is responsible for making sure that everyone who teaches a young person knows what support they need. Speaking to them is a good way to make sure all the teachers know your teenager’s situation.
Many schools also have learning mentors or pastoral support staff who will be able to support young people. All schools are different and the support that is available through schools varies from area to area. Some schools have a school counsellor.
All schools should have some form of counselling available to their students, although it is not always easy or possible to access this. Where counselling is available in schools, the service is normally promoted to students, who can often refer themselves. If the school knows what is happening, they may approach the young person and offer to refer them. You can ask the school what the process is.
If counselling is not available through the school, you can also contact your GP, Cruse Bereavement Care or your local hospice to find out what support is available.
Don’t feel you have to cope on your own
It can be particularly hard to help your teenager when you are also dealing with your own grief. You may also worry that you are not ‘doing it right’ or are somehow making things worse. Remember that this is not something you have to do on your own – your family and friends, GP, healthcare professionals and their school can all help. There may also be a specialist bereavement service locally that you can use.
Make sure you have lots of support around you from other family members and friends. If they offer to help, let them!
If you feel you would like more specialist bereavement support, good places to start looking are your GP, Cruse Bereavement Care and your local hospice – if they can’t provide support they should be able to signpost you.