Nicola Morgan

Author, Speaker, Supporter

Understanding and Supporting Your Teenagers – few spaces left and I’m not doing it again!

Helping young people through bereavement

Recently, a reader requested that I write something to support teenagers going through grief:

“Having supported adolescents for many years in the educational environment when they are experiencing aspects of bereavement in their life I would love to be able to have a resource that friends/families/carers/other adults could refer to to help them in supporting the young person.”

I’m not an expert specifically in grief but I do have professional knowledge of mental health, a counselling qualification (a certificate in counselling and a diploma in youth counselling) and I have personal experience of grief.

Things to know and share about grief

  • Grief feels different for different people and in different situations – there is no one way to experience grief. Whatever you feel is “natural” and OK, even though it doesn’t feel at all OK.
  • Grief is not the same from one day or one moment to the next. Generally, yes, the pain of it does fade but that doesn’t mean that each day is a bit better than the one before. Sometimes tomorrow feels worse than today. But over time it does eventually feel easier. you change and become able to cope. The grief itself changes. The space it takes up in your life reduces so, in time, you can fit other things and other people in your life and the pain becomes less all-consuming. People say that time heals grief and, in many senses it does. It doesn’t make it go away but it makes it manageable. Time (and good friends and a healthy life) can make the grief become a part of your history but something that does not stop you moving into a new future.
  • Grief can be pure and simple or mixed with any other emotions, such as anger, fear, anxiety, guilt. All these are normal, natural and OK.
  • Grief can sometimes include or cause things that you might not realise are associated with your loss: physical illnesses and pains such as headaches and stomach-aches; poor sleep patterns; mood swings and snappiness; forgetfulness; making mistakes and getting into trouble at school or home.

If you’re supporting a young person, it is very helpful for them to hear those things.

An extra thought

The most painful time is not always the most difficult. Usually (but not always) the most intense grief is the first stages, where you have just lost the person and you are full of shock, pain and intense sadness. Sometimes you might feel you can’t breathe. But this is not always the most difficult stage. It can be more difficult sometime later, when you might believe you “should” be feeling better or – that dreadful phrase – “getting over it”. During the early, intense stages, you are probably (I hope) getting lots of support and kindness. But at some point, those who were not so close as you to the person who has died or not so grief-stricken, start to return to their previous normality. You might feel you can’t do that, that you’re stuck in this state of pain. You might even think there’s something wrong with you that you feel like this when others appear not to.

This experience is very common. There’s nothing wrong with you – you are grieving. But you might well need some professional help to support you through this and to a better state of mind and body. Not to “get over” but to “get through”.

And a thought about teenagers

One thing you (and they) need to know about the teenage brain: because the prefrontal cortex (PFC) doesn’t fully develop until the mid-late 20s, and because the PFC is what enables us to look ahead to future possibilities and process emotions, adolescents can find both these things harder. They can also find it harder to act with self-control and reason, more often acting on emotion. People of all ages can struggle to put reason (cool choices) before emotion (hot choices) but adolescents will typically struggle more and need more support.

The five stages of grief?

This five stages of grief model, developed by developed by Elisabeth Kübler-Ross in the 1960s, is interesting but it’s important not to think that this is what your grief is supposed to be like. It’s useful to know what the stages are, as long as you don’t assume they go in a certain order or that each person will experience them.

What’s important is to know a) that there are many emotions attached to grief and b) that how you feel now is not how you’ll feel later. We can’t predict what you’ll feel in between now and later or how – or how quickly – you’ll reach “later”.

Things that can help

  • Talking about your feelings – but it’s important to choose the right people. You might be better talking to someone who knows you or you might be better talking to a professional who doesn’t know you. Who will help you choose? I suggest you ask either a) your closest adult relative or friend or b) a GP to help you decide who is the best person to talk to. Or you could ask Childline: 0800 1111.
    • Note: if the people you want to talk to are also bereaved and dealing with their own loss of the person you are grieving, sometimes they are the right people to talk to but sometimes they might not be. It can be very helpful to share your joint memories and your joint feelings but it might sometimes make you feel inhibited from saying how you feel. It is likely that you both need to talk to someone else as well as each other.
  • Talking about the person you’ve lost (if you want to) – again, choose the right people to talk to and ask an adult close to you who they think would be good to talk to. Afain, this might be people you know or it might be someone else.
  • Try any of these organisations – their websites have lots of information about grief, as well as helplines:
  • Allow time for the past, the present and the future – if you’re helping a young person (or yourself or a friend) make sure all three parts of our lives are heard and valued. But always talking about the past, or only thinking about the present or never thinking about the future would all be unhealthy habits. If you think you or someone you care about is focusing too much or too little on one, think about ways to bring balance to their thoughts and actions. You can’t (and shouldn’t try to) force someone’s thoughts, but you can make gentle suggestions. the past/present/future activities can sometimes be about the person you’ve lost and it can sometimes be completely unrelated. her
    My healthy hobby: gardening. It’s also when I do my thinking about past, present and future. Including about my sister who died in 2019

    e are a few examples:

    • Past – a memory book or box about the person; just talking through photos; or sharing a memory of something where the person didn’t feature at all
    • Present – what shall we do today? Mindfulness activities; journalling current feelings
    • Future – a new hobby or class; talking about next school term; what three small things would you like to achieve or to go well?
  • A healthy lifestyle – when you are able to (and with help if you need it) then building a healthy lifestyle helps in two ways: it helps you feel that there are some things you can do to take control of your life (bereavement often makes you feel a loss of control) and it will also help you become physically and mentally healthier and fitter.
  • A new activity, skill or hobby – thinking about this can be a way of showing that your life is continuing, with hope and happy moments; and actually getting started on it can be incredibly helpful in terms of raises spirits and giving the mind something else to focus on, bit by bit.

It’s OK to laugh!

I’m ending with this because it can be the hardest thing to accept: that, yes, it is OK to laugh, to smile, to have fun and feel happy. At first it feels impossible – or wrong and disloyal – but it will come and when it does you might feel shocked, guilty – and then painfully sad all over again. But it IS OK. it’s more than OK: to laugh, to have fun and be happy, are good, human and healthy ways to live.

Grief and joy are not enemies. They can live together and allow each other their space.


A reminder of the excellent organisations that support people under 25 who are experiencing the loss of a loved one:

 

 

 

Do comment but please remember that this site is for all ages.

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