Coping With Teen Grief in Healthy Ways

Published April 23, 2020
Sad unhappy teenage girl

Teens may experience grief differently than adults and younger children. Knowing how to cope with grief in healthy ways can provide you with helpful resources for processing this complex, and at times scary experience.

Understanding Teen Grief

Teen grief is unique to each person experiencing it. Keep in mind that grief doesn't have a set lasting period but more often ebbs and flows depending on how long it's been since you lost someone and whether you are experiencing something that reminds you of them.

What to Emotions and Behaviors to Expect

You may not have ever experienced a loss before, so the feelings or thoughts that may come up for you can feel scary. You may experience symptoms of depression, anxiety, lower self-esteem, difficulty sleeping, feelings of rage, numbness, exhaustion, and difficulty concentrating.

Dealing With Intense Feelings

You may also wish you could be with the person who passed away and feel yourself pulling back from friends and family members. Though uncomfortable and painful, these symptoms and feelings are completely normal and to be expected after a loss. If you find that the intensity of your feelings are not decreasing over time, and that you are having thoughts or urges to hurt yourself or others, reach out to a trusted adult, crisis line, or the police immediately. It's critical to continue to check in with yourself and track your emotions so you can ensure your safety.

What to Do if You Experience Sudden Grief

Sudden grief is much more common for teens to experience and can lead to some really difficult and painful feelings. If you've recently lost a parent, a sibling, a friend, or a mentor, you may experience feelings of shock and disbelief, as well as have trouble going back to your typical routine. Your body may also display physical reactions such as shaking, and you may feel as if the world is unfair and/or unsafe. All of these thoughts and feelings can leave you not knowing what to do and afraid of how long these reactions may last. Remind yourself that what you are experiencing both physically and mentally is totally normal- grief after a sudden loss can feel traumatic and it may take you some time to get back to feeling like yourself again. Be patient with yourself and try to find healthy ways to release, instead of ignoring, the emotions you are feeling.

Teen dealing with grief

Identify Emotions to Cope

One of many hurdles to work through during the grieving process is connecting to yourself, identifying your emotions and digging deep into their meaning.

What Teens May Experience

You may be experiencing increased sadness, feeling numb, feeling bouts of anger that seem to come out of nowhere, and overall exhaustion. You may also feel the urge to sleep more than you normally would. Sleeping extra is a common reaction that some children and teens experience after something that feels traumatic or incredibly painful occurs.

How to Identify Emotions

To begin identifying your emotions, do so when you have proper privacy, time to sit with your feelings, and time to decompress afterwards. This will be different for each individual, so give yourself more time than you think you'll need just to be safe when you try this out. Although it may sound silly to identify and sit with your emotions, it's a critical part of the healing process when it comes to grief and loss. Keeping your emotions shoved down only creates additional stress on your mind and body. To begin,

  1. Close your eyes and bring up an image of the person or pet that you've lost.
  2. Take deep breaths and focus inward on what your body is feeling.
  3. Imagine your breath flowing to the areas of your body that are experiencing pain.
  4. Do so for as long as you feel comfortable and note that initial feelings of discomfort are normal.
  5. Remind yourself that allowing yourself to feel helps you process and release your emotions, which may help decrease the intensity of grieving over time.
  6. When you are ready to end the exercise, spend some time doing a grounding exercise such as progressive muscle relaxation, mindfulness, or deep breathing.

Keep in mind that it is totally normal to feel resistant in allowing your emotions to flow freely. Many are taught to keep their emotions at bay and have put up blocks that delay or prevent their emotions from being released. If you are struggling with this exercise, continue practicing it on a daily basis and continue to remind yourself that this may help release the emotional intensity being stored in your body.

Read Grief-Focused Literature for Teens

Literature that speaks specifically to teen grief can help you feel better understood, while getting a glimpse into other individuals' healing processes. This may give you a sense of validation and make you feel less alone in this experience. While this will not remove the pain you are experiencing, there can be a sense of comfort in knowing that others have gone through similar experiences, as well as knowing what you may be able to expect as you move through the healing process. Some helpful resources that you may want to check out include Grief Healing Blog, You Are Not Alone: Teens Talk About Life After the Loss of a Parent, and We Are Okay.

Check in With Yourself While Grieving

Many teens operate on auto-pilot, even during the process of grieving. Knowing how to check in with yourself can give you a better understanding of what you are feeling, as well as where you are at in the grieving process. To check in with yourself:

  1. Try to quiet your thoughts and think about how you are feeling, how intensely you are feeling it, and where you are feeling any emotional charge in your body.
  2. If you have trouble quieting your thoughts, imagine your thoughts are text bubbles floating away and you are solely there to observe them, not act on their meaning.
  3. It may be helpful to track your emotional intensity on your phone or in a journal to give you a better understanding of your emotional patterns throughout the grieving process.

Journaling Prompts for Teens

Journaling or drawing can help release emotions that may feel too scary to say aloud. Give yourself time every day, if possible, to journal. Write or draw whatever you are feeling or are thinking about without judgment. Note how you are feeling before and after grief journaling. Notice if you feel emotionally lighter or heavier and think about why that may be. Some prompts you may want to try include:

  • Is there anything at school that tends to trigger a memory of my loved one?
  • Is there anyone at school who I feel comfortable speaking with about this loss?
  • What time of day tends to feel the most emotionally difficult for me? Does this tend to happen at school or during an extracurricular?
  • What are some healthy ways I can work through feelings of stress or sadness that may arise during or after class?
  • What makes me feel proud of myself as I think back to how I've handled this loss?
  • Am I meeting my basic needs (eating, drinking water, getting enough sleep)? If not, what areas need a boost and how can I do so?

Connect With Trusted Friends and Family Members

Having loved ones around that will listen to you, provide you with support, and help you process this experience without any judgment can feel incredibly comforting during this time. Grief can elicit feelings of loneliness and you may feel drawn to isolate yourself. Connecting with others can help you feel loved and cared for. This can feel really good when you are processing something very painful. If you feel comfortable doing so, reach out to someone you feel comfortable venting to. If you don't feel ready, or aren't comfortable doing so at this time, that's totally okay.

Teen girl offers to help her friend

Schedule Time to Process

Sometimes in times of shock and pain, it can feel comforting to create a schedule for yourself specifically for processing grief-related feelings. While feelings may come and go for some, for others they may feel trapped within them. On top of school work and extracurriculars, it may feel challenging to find the time to process what you're experiencing. This doesn't need to take hours to do each day, but can look like a 10 minute or so moment that you give to yourself as often as you possibly can. This new self-care routine may eventually become something you look forward to as a way to release built up or stored emotions. Be sure to do something specific that marks the beginning and end of your scheduled time so you can mentally shift. This can include:

  • Opening or closing a bedroom door
  • Moving out of a specific area of the room, like from the couch to a chair by the window
  • Heading into another space entirely, like from an empty locker room to the full gym

Ground Yourself

Grounding yourself is an important skill to learn as you wade through painful or confusing emotions. Grounding exercises include peaceful visualizations, breathing exercises, practicing mindfulness, progressive muscle relaxation, stretching, and going for a walk among others. Explore which grounding exercises feel the best to you and know that you can engage in any of these exercises when you are feeling overwhelmed with emotion.

Breathing Exercise for Teens

Grounding exercises can also help you feel more in control as the emotions that may accompany grief may bring up feelings of disconnectedness with yourself. For many teens, emotions may be felt more intensely in a physical way and some may feel difficult to describe. When you feel an intense shift in your body or any tenseness, try to focus inward and address what's going on. A simple grounding exercise to try:

  1. Sit comfortably on a chair or the floor.
  2. Close your eyes and focus on your breathing.
  3. Place your hand on your stomach and feel the rise and fall of your breath.
  4. Allow your thoughts to come up and simply observe them.
  5. Continue to focus on your breath.
  6. If possible, keep a journal of emotions that were coming up for you, how you felt before the exercise and how you feel afterwards. You can rate your emotions on a scale of zero (no emotions and no body tenseness) to 10 (the most discomfort and pain possible).

Grounding Takes Time and Practice

With time, you'll be able to more quickly identify your emotions, know which grounding exercises work best for you, and have a good handle on how long it typically takes your mind and body to return to a more calm state. Doing so can increase your insight, as well as your emotional intelligence- both of which are super important in helping you identify and meet your personal and relationship-related needs and goals.

Know When to Ask for Help

No one can understand what you are going through better than you can. If you are feeling emotional intensity that is unbearable, are having thoughts of harming yourself or others, or feel overwhelmed with grief, there are plenty of ways to connect with others who can assist you in healthy ways. Trusted teachers, caregivers, parents, family members, and counselors may provide support during times where you feel like your friends are unable to or don't quite understand what you are going through. If you aren't comfortable sharing your identity, but would like some assistance, reach out to a teen crisis line or suicide crisis line for some support.

Resources for Parents

As a parent, it can feel beyond painful to see your child grieving a significant loss. There are plenty of ways you can help and provide your child with support. Be aware that as you provide your child with support, you will need to practice good self-care as this may leave you feeling drained with heightened levels of stress.

Be There for Them

Provide your teen with extra support during this time. Know that they may experience grief differently than you or others would, and that's okay. To help them feel heard and supported:

  • Practice active listening. This means you allow them to share whatever they would like and you reiterate what they are saying to help them feel understood and heard.
  • Ask them how much space they need and respect their wishes, unless they are engaging in dangerous or harmful behavior.
  • Ask before offering advice.
  • Remind them how much you love them and how much the deceased loved them.
  • Tell them you are there for them at any time and continue to check in with them at least every day.
  • Ask if they'd like your help in finding a way to honor the deceased.
  • Be proactive about finding a therapist or support group if you've decided this would be helpful.

Grief Counseling for Teens

Working with a counselor or therapist who specializes in teen grief can help your teen move through this experience with the help of a professional who can offer resources and monitor their well-being. Grief counselors can be especially helpful if your teen tends to struggle with identifying or releasing their emotions.

Girl in A Counseling session

To find a grief counselor, look for someone who specializes in teen grief and their specific loss. This way, they'll be working with someone who has experience working with other teens who have gone through similar situations. If you are unable to afford the therapist you are interested in, ask if they take your specific insurance, or if they are able to work on a sliding scale.

Help Your Teen Find an Online or In-Person Support Group

There are tons of grief-centered support groups available for teens at various prices, including some free options. If your teen is interested in hearing about other teens' experiences with grief, as well as sharing their own in a more anonymous setting, this type of processing option may be a good one to consider. Note that not all support groups are run by professional counselors, so dig into figuring out what type of group you think would be the best fit for your child's needs.

Be Kind to Yourself

Losing a loved one or pet can feel incredibly painful and you may wonder if you will experience these uncomfortable and painful emotions forever. Keep in mind, that for most individuals, emotions tend to intensify, peak, and then gradually begin to lessen as you allow yourself time to process your emotions and heal. Take good care of yourself during this time and know that you deserve to feel whatever you need to feel so you can heal.

Coping With Teen Grief in Healthy Ways