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A Teen’s Journey Through Grief & How to Cope Using Resiliency

Yaakov Richter, LMSW February 2024

Adolescence is a time of change and self-discovery, but it can also be marked by grief. About 8% of young people in the United States experience the loss of a family member before turning 18, and this number rises to over 15% by age 25. Grief is unique for everyone, with diverse reactions from changes in sleep and appetite to emotions like sadness and anger. Adolescents face particular challenges as they navigate identity and future planning amid loss. In this blog, we'll explore adolescent grief, its common reactions, the impact of traumatic loss, and ways to foster resilience.

How prevalent is bereavement in adolescence?

It is quite common for a teenager to experience the death of a sibling or a parent! Approximately8% of individuals in the United States bereave immediate family members prior to turning 18years old. The prevalence of bereavement surpasses 15% when the age is moved up to 25 years old.1

What are common reactions following a loss?

There is no ‘right way’ to grieve and every teenager experiences grief in an individualized way. There are a wide range of common reactions in the aftermath of a loss. Some adolescents will encounter changes in appetite or sleep patterns. Others might be restless or have difficulty concentrating. Sadness, anger, loneliness, resentment, anxiety, and fear are among the emotions that are typical to feel in the months and years that follow loss.2

What unique challenges present for adolescents?

While great overlap exists in the experience of grief throughout the lifespan, particular challenges present for a teenager grieving the loss of a sibling or parent. For example, changes to one’s sense of identity or to a person’s vision of their future are common grief reactions. Processing such shifts during adolescence, the time period where discovery and exploration are in full gear, can take on a unique significance.

Can the process of grief be impacted when a loss is traumatic?

Yes! A Traumatic-loss refers to a loss that occurs in potentially traumatic circumstances. Examples include a death that results from a car accident, a homicide, violence, or natural disaster. Trauma-related symptoms often interfere with the grieving process. Some teenagers report that thinking of their loved ones automatically triggers distressing thoughts, images, or reminders regarding the circumstances of their death.

Fostering Resiliency to Help the Grieving Process:

Teenagers hold the capacity for strong resiliency! Here are key protective factors that strengthen resilience following the loss of a parent or sibling:- Strong support system: A strong foundation can help a house weather a story. Consider spending extra quality time with family, reminiscing about past memories, and creating new memories together! Who in your life do you feel comfortable talking to during a challenging time? Is there a friend whose presence makes you feel safe and steady?

  • Stable and predictable environment: What were the routines or traditions that existed when the deceased was alive? How can you keep some of those routines and traditions going? What activities are part of your day-to-day schedule that bring a sense of lightness and familiarity? Is there a structure that feels comfortable for you - a school sports team, an extracurricular community group, or maybe a faith based gathering?
  • Healthy lifestyle: How can you care for yourself during this challenging period? What type of exercise makes you feel energized? Is there a new hobby you were hoping to try? The emotional process of loss and grief can be tiring, so is your body getting sufficient rest?
  • Cognitive flexibility: How might you be able to appraise the challenging life event in amore helpful way? Is there an opening to find some level of meaning in the experience?
  • Sense of Humor: Research indicates that laughter is indeed a form of medicine! In one study, people who more regularly smiled or shared laughs about humorous memories of their loved one, were found to adjust better than the control group. For example, when sharing stories about the deceased, try to share humorous memories with others. Similarly, allowing yourself to indulge in general laughter and smiling will help you move through the grieving process (this has been shown in research studies!).

1 Judi’s House (2022). Childhood bereavement estimation model.https://judishouse.org/researchtools/cbem/2 Veterans Affairs. (2020, April 24). Grief: Different Reactions and Timelines in the Aftermath of Loss.Va.gov. https://www.ptsd.va.gov/understand/related/related_grief_reactions.asp#:~:text=Common%20Grief%20Reactions,-After%20loss%2C%20there&text=Emotionally%2C%20strong%20feelings%20of%20sadness,betraying%20the%20person%20who%20died.

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