Today’s teenagers live in a world where death is referenced everywhere, in the music they listen to, the technology they use, and the media they engage with. However, this is usually death at a distance, with little impact on their daily lives. It is when death comes close that a teenager’s world can be disrupted in a major way. Adults should not assume that 'close' always means the death of a family member. The death of a friend, or even someone a young person barely knew, can have a huge impact and this is sometimes unrecognised. Adolescence can be a time of great change and adding bereavement to this has been described as ‘grief with knobs on’. It is not surprising that the challenges facing bereaved young people can be very daunting for both the young person and for those adults supporting them.

This information sheet was written with input from bereaved young people supported by Child Bereavement UK. Here are the issues as they see them:

“Don’t think it’s the same for everyone”

All young people are individuals and will grieve in their own way.

I acted completely different from my brother because I was much more angry whereas he was more quiet.

Family members may be grieving for the same person, but each will have had their own, unique relationship with that person and therefore the meaning of the death will be different for each one. Complex family relationships can leave a young person confused about just who it is they are grieving for, or they may result in mixed feelings towards the person who died. It is very important to this age group that they are seen as their own person with their own specific needs, regardless of what the rest of the family may think. 

“Losing a parent at a young age, you lose most of your childhood”

The journey to adulthood is normally a bumpy but also gradual path. Young people tell us that the death of a parent or sibling forces them to grow up overnight. They suddenly perceive themselves to be in an alien world of adult responsibilities for which they are not prepared. The resentment can be huge, especially initially.

It's not only a bereavement... so you're hearing your Mum cry and trying to get over your Dad's death... and then you're trying to get your family to school so by the time you get to school you've got a million other things to think about.

With time, there can be a positive side to this. Bereaved young people can show a maturity and wisdom beyond their years with real empathy for others who are finding life difficult.

“Sometimes it’s hard to know what we are feeling”

Teenagers who are grieving can feel completely overwhelmed by powerful feelings and emotions that they do not understand or expect. These feelings of grief are often no different from those experienced by adults but are more intense. Guy, aged 17, explained that he doesn’t always know how he is feeling, or what he needs or wants, and so adults shouldn’t expect him to be able to say how they can help.

“I feel very angry at no one in particular, just anger” 

Anger makes up a large part of any child’s grief, and especially for a teenager. Some teenagers have told us that they don’t know why they feel angry, they just do. They may experience angry outbursts at school, or at home. Teenagers are often at a loss as to what to do with their anger and feel quite frightened by it. Often powerless to control it, the pressure builds, and the resulting explosion comes out as challenging or extreme behaviour. This can be very difficult for the young person and their family to deal with. It can help to tell a young person that it is common and OK to be angry but that they need to express it in a way that is safe for themselves and other people. For example, they could do something energetic to let off steam, or find a quiet space to help them calm down.

“I went a bit mad”

Even after someone has died, a hectic social life often continues to be an important part of any teenager’s day. Bereaved young people have told us that spending time with friends or going out to their usual haunts are helpful coping strategies. It also lets them escape from what might sometimes be a tense or unhappy atmosphere at home. Teenagers may try out risk-taking behaviour in an attempt to get back some control if life currently feels very out of control. Parents, siblings and friends are not meant to die when young. Young people can view these untimely deaths as a huge injustice and intensely unfair. Misuse of alcohol or drugs can be a tempting way to blot out painful feelings. Driving recklessly, but remaining unhurt, can give a teenager a sense of being back in control, particularly of their own mortality. 

If you are worried about their safety, you could say: 'I’m worried about you staying out very late. Can we think together about what might help you?' By involving them in decisions about their behaviour, this may help them feel more in control, and help them to realise that you have noticed and that you care.

“It’s hard to talk to your parents about who died in case you cry and make them cry”

Many young people find it easier to speak to friends rather than family. This can feel hurtful for adults who are trying their best to offer support and comfort which is then rejected. Try to remember that teenagers can be very protective of their family. To avoid causing further distress, they may prefer to speak to someone of their own age group, or other adults they trust such as a teacher. Online support can offer a safe and anonymous way to share experiences and feel less alone. There are suggestions of moderated, safe websites listed at the end of the download below.

“I lost friends simply because they did not know what to say or do”

Friends can also be a source of distress and upset. Insensitive remarks or even deliberately unhelpful comments are not unusual. Friends may become aware of their own losses or inability to handle the situation, and they then withdraw their friendship. Bereaved teenagers can feel that friends just don’t understand, and they then struggle to deal with their social groups.

“I wondered what the point of going back to school was”

For a teenager whose world has just fallen apart, life can lose its purpose and meaning. They may become apathetic, depressed, withdrawn and develop a 'what’s the point?' attitude to school or even life. 

I felt like nothing mattered any more, like everything seemed really trivial and all my work just didn't really matter.

Others may become very hard working to make up for feelings of guilt. 

How to help grieving teenagers

“I tried to talk to various people, but I couldn’t relate to anyone”

Most of the help offered to grieving teenagers by adults involves talking. This is something most teenagers find very hard to do, especially with someone they do not know. The young people that we work with at Child Bereavement UK tell us that they prefer support from adults they already know and trust. Taking part in an activity helps a teenager to feel less pressurised into talking. Sometimes it is enough to just be with an adult who they know cares. When ready, they might start a conversation about what has happened, but don’t expect it. 

Young people tell us that other things that help them include:

  • Being with other bereaved people the same age as them;
  • Doing something creative such as using pictures, colours or materials to represent the person who has died, or creating a visual list of people or things who are there for them; or
  • Writing tips or making a short film about what helps, or simply taking the dog for a walk. 

Give options

Try to offer a young person options for support and leave them to decide which they want to try, if any. You can gently remind them of adults other than family who they can go to if they wish. You could also suggest they have a look at the websites and resources given at the end of this sheet. These websites offer online contact with others their own age who will be experiencing similar situations. If the young person you are supporting rejects your help, continue to let them know that you will be there to listen when they are ready. A consistent, but discreet presence can make it easier for a stressed teenager to accept some help without feeling pressured. 

Boundaries

Try to keep the usual expectations around behaviour. When a young person’s world has fallen apart, keeping their familiar boundaries will help them to feel safe and have some sense of normal life continuing, even when life feels very far from normal. 

Boost self-esteem

Bereaved young people can experience feelings of low self-worth and a lack of self-esteem. However, they often have a maturity beyond their years, a greater appreciation of the value of life than some of their peers and can be less judgemental than others their own age. These are very positive qualities to point out to a young person who is struggling with self-esteem.

When extra help may be needed

Grief is not an illness or a condition - it is normal, as are extreme responses to it. It is when these responses continue for the long term that there may be cause for concern. Grief does not go away completely, but with timely and appropriate support, a young person can find ways to cope so that their grief becomes a manageable part of their life. If grief is preventing them from engaging with normal life, do not hesitate to support them in asking for help. Most young people will not need professional help but some will need a bit of extra support. Others may need a more in-depth approach with bereavement support or counselling. 

Being alongside a grieving teenager is not always easy, especially if you are dealing with your own grief at the same time. our national Helpline (0800 02 888 40) offers confidential listening and guidance to young people, families and professionals. The team can also signpost you to any organisations in your area who might be able to help. 


Click below to download a print-friendly PDF version of this page, including further reading and resources:

Understanding grieving teenagers

Author: Child Bereavement UK 

© Child Bereavement UK