How to Help a Teen Grieve the Loss of a Friend

GoodTherapy | How to Help a Teen Grieve the Loss of a FriendWhat does a counselor say to a teen who just found out his or her best friend has died an unexpected death? I recently found myself facing that very challenge. I found myself asking, “What can I do or say to fill the space?”

Sometimes, there simply are no words. While adults often have strong opinions about what grief should look like, such as talking about feelings, teens often don’t want to talk and just want to be with their feelings. An important lesson I learned is that when a teen is grieving, he/she needs to be given the same respect, trust, and space that adults receive when they are grieving in order to process feelings in his/her own way. Initially, teens often don’t want to answer questions, do art therapy, journal about their feelings, etc.

As I sat with a teen in my office, wondering if I should implement the strategies stated above, I could almost hear the words, “Just let me have my feelings!” I began to realize that I was the one uncomfortable with the silence and with “just being there” as the teen tried to absorb and process an event that forever changed the teen’s life. This is not to say that, at some point, opportunities for the teen to express grief won’t be helpful and therapeutic; however, the process needs to happen on the teen’s timeline, not mine.

There is no “right” way for teens to mourn the loss of a friend. I believe teens get through the mourning process in a more effective way if the adults in their lives walk that journey with them without trying to determine and/or tell them what they need and/or where they should be in the grieving process. Teens need to understand that they are in a grieving process and allow themselves to feel their feelings, which can be very scary. Initially, teens may resist allowing themselves to feel anger, sadness, confusion, the need for answers, and regret. They need to be given permission to “meet themselves where they are” and to understand that it is normal for their emotions to change frequently. At some point, opportunities for teens to express their grief through art, writing, talking, etc., will be helpful and therapeutic.

What is the best way for parents to “walk the journey” with a teen who has lost a friend to death? While each situation is different and individualized, parents can take the role of listener and learner and allow the teen to be the teacher. Parents need to follow their teen’s lead. Another way parents can walk beside their teen without being intrusive is by providing the support of outside resources that the teen can access as he/she feels the need to or when he/she feels ready to, before the teen has an opportunity to get stuck in the grief process.

Parents need to be mindful of their own grief issues, as they will influence the way they relate to their teen. Parents often fear that their teen will become suicidal or stuck in their grief and believe they need to monitor the teen at all times. While this belief comes from a spirit of caring, sometimes a teen will feel smothered and become resentful if the teen perceives that he/she doesn’t have the opportunity to grieve in his/her own way. While parents and other family members and friends should be nearby and available, a teen may need the opportunity to perceive that he/she has enough space to sob, yell, or scream without the fear that anyone can hear. Parents need to be careful of directing their teen’s grief process as opposed to being a companion and support.

While teens should not be judged for the way they grieve, clearly there are constructive behaviors as well as destructive behaviors teens may engage in while mourning. Behaviors that are considered constructive are those that encourage teens to face their grief, such as talking with trusted family members or friends and expressing emotion (along with creating art, journaling, etc.). Behaviors that are considered destructive are those that allow teens to “numb” their feelings, such as drugs, alcohol, reckless sexual behavior, antisocial behavior, academic problems, etc.

Grief is not something that ends. Without the intention of being offensive, many often say, “You need to move on,” but grief is not something one gets over. It is something that changes over time and is eventually accepted.

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  • suzy

    January 13th, 2015 at 10:56 AM

    The hardest lesson is that most of these kids already think that they are inconceivable so when something kike this hits close to home, it hits them all like a ton of bricks.

  • Claire

    January 13th, 2015 at 3:15 PM

    As a parent you naturally want to say and do the right thing, but how can there ever be a right thing to say or do when something so heartbreaking and unfair as this happens? I find that the best thing that we can do as adults is to take our cues from our kids when they go through an experience like this. I think that their actions and their words will show us what they are feeling and what they need, we just have to be willing to see that and listen to them.

  • Desiree

    January 14th, 2015 at 3:53 AM

    I just lost a good friend last year and the last thing that I wanted was advice from other people about how to handle it. I wanted to feel the loss and grieve in the way that felt right for me and not the way that some textbook or self help book told me that I was supposed to feel. It all made sense to me and maybe it took a little longer to work through it and accept it because that was how much the pain hurt me, but I know that I am in a better place today because I did go through the grieving process in my own way and on my terms.

  • trace c

    January 14th, 2015 at 2:33 PM

    Don’t turn away from them when they need you the most. I see a lot of parents who are uncomfortable with the immensity of their kids’ feelings, they don’t know how to handle those emotions any better than the teens do. So they walk away from that instead of being uncomfortable. Don’t turn away from them at a time when they are going to need loads of care because this is not something that they can handle alone, that any of us should have to handle alone.

  • Catherine Boyer, MA, LCSW

    January 15th, 2015 at 6:30 AM

    Lovely, useful article. So true about the path of grief over time.

  • Tessa

    January 15th, 2015 at 10:53 AM

    I think that there is something so different that you experience when you have this kind of loss at a very young age. I think that the grieving process is so much more difficult because you are just unsure about all of this craziness that surrounds how you are feeling and truthfully it is already hard with all of the other things that you have going on.

    When there is this kind of loss a lot of the healing will just come from staying in touch with those feelings and not being inclined to bury then like so many younger kids would choose to do.

    Sometimes that is going to feel easier for them than actually processing the pain because they think that if they bury it then they won’t have to deal with it.

  • Margaret

    January 16th, 2015 at 10:07 AM

    Very helpful for mental health professionals who work with youth. It’s hard for us social workers who have to work in a bureaucratic system that is focused on “results.” Hard to justify to the system just sitting with a teen while they grieve when we have to prove our usefulness.

  • Gina

    January 17th, 2015 at 1:20 PM

    But you know what Margaret? I find that it is so refreshing for even a professional to admit that they don’t always have all of the answers and that life is basically one hopefully long learning experience for us all.

  • Davey

    January 19th, 2015 at 11:02 AM

    The thing about kids is that they want guidance but they don’t necessarily want you to tell them what they should feel and how they should react to something like this. I find that they appreciate far more a great role model, someone who models to them appropriate behavior and that they will respond to this much better than they ever would a lecture.

  • Tiffany

    July 11th, 2016 at 8:51 PM

    I have had to allow my child to grieve in his own way. I have kept a good eye on him and by his request kept him busy. He has mourned with his baseball team, which his friend was a part of, and all the baseball team brothers stood together and in uniform at the funeral. It was a beautiful and touching moment. I am so incredibly grateful for a great brotherhood of teammates and also a community that is more like a family than a town of strangers. My child asked to go to the grave site and spend some quiet time alone to say goodbye to a great young man who changed my sons life. I am letting him grieve in his own way and his own time frame. My heart is breaking for him and I hope I am making the right choices. If anyone has some idea’s to share I am willing to listen. It is so difficult to watch his heart break and I hope and pray I am making good decision’s.

  • Evonne D

    January 29th, 2018 at 8:58 AM

    Hi, this was so lovely to read, my son lost his best friend of 13yrs a couple of months ago to leukaemia. Its was sussen as he had been give the all clear but had an accident which ruptured his spleen. My son is 17 n his friend was 18! My son has hardly shown any emotions except when his friend passed abd the funeral!! Ive let him deal with itbhis own way but have found out through his girlfriend hes not coping as well as hes lead us all to believe! Ive always let him know that im always here for him but do I let him continue as hes doing or do i try to steer him for some support??? Thanks

  • Bonita

    July 18th, 2017 at 4:22 AM

    my 13 year old lost a friend and her mother and siblings in a car accident. He is very fragile and breaks to tears. He claims that he will tell what hurts most and that we can talk some time it has been three months . I am feeling the hurt but have to help . I don’t know where to start.

  • Linda

    December 29th, 2018 at 4:15 PM

    I think for some it can take years to process a loss like that. The survivors try to grieve by thinking there is a right way to grieve. (Pressure). They need to know it’s okay to process at your own pace, and to know they have someone there to understand or sympathize with them at any time.

  • sharna

    March 23rd, 2019 at 9:21 AM

    A few days ago, my 14 year old daughter came home from school crying also with cuts and missing hair off the top of her head. i started freaking out and yelling, but she just stood there doing nothing then when i asked her what was wrong
    she walked away and said ‘i want to die’. i called her father and sent her away not knowing that her best friend (she has been best friends with for 9 years) committed suicide. the funeral is in a couple of days and she doesn’t want to go, but i want her to go……..what do i do?……please i’m lost?

  • Bob

    October 8th, 2019 at 6:36 PM

    My 13 year old son is grieving the loss of his 14 year old best mate who passed away six days ago now. I found the advice on this page very helpful. There have been few words to help console him but I did stumble onto a thought that he has found helpful. I explained that his friend’s death has left a hole in him. A visceral metaphor. That hole is now one of the millions of unique parts that make him who he is as a person. Like a birthmark, a freckle or a scar, he now lives with that hole in him. Trying to fill it with something else is futile and destructive. The pain is so intense right now but over time he will come to accept that hole as a part of himself. My son seemed to connect with this thought. We have a long way to go but it is good to see him owning his grief.

  • Flor

    February 25th, 2020 at 9:02 AM

    My Steph grandson lost two friends to suicide .He stop going to college and enrolled in a local community college, he is very smart but we don’t think he wants to go , he sleeps all day and plays videos all night. His girlfriend comes every night and sometimes stays until 2 in the morning.His mother does not want my son to interfere and is affecting their relationship.How can I help?

  • Jody

    October 5th, 2020 at 9:21 PM

    My 15 year old son just lost his best friend yesterday from a skateboarding accident. When I got the the call and told him, he instantly broke down sobbing. I held him and cried with him, then when he stopped crying I told him I’m here for him. Then I left him alone, soon I got back upstairs I could hear him crying again. My heart is so broken for him. I like to think we have a good relationship, but he is 15 so he isn’t very open and forthcoming with his feelings. I’m going to be there for him as much as he’ll let me. I guess my question is: when he is crying do I go to him every time or do I let him have his privacy?

  • Rebecca

    March 24th, 2021 at 11:02 AM

    There’s no time limit on grieving. My son who is now 15 still grieves his friend that committed suicide a year and a half ago. He started out with sadness mixed with anger, then disbelief mixed with anger, then blaming himself mixed with anger, then sadness mixed with anger and now he’s just easily annoyed/angered most of the time…once in awhile I’ll see his old self, but it’s short lived. He always loved kids, talked about being an elementary school teacher since he was little and having a herd of kids. Now he says that he’ll never teach or have children of his own because the pain of losing one to suicide isn’t something that he can handle ever again and that he’d probably have to take his own life to deaden the pain. It breaks my heart and I’m looking into getting him therapy so he can work through these emotions. I thought I was doing good with reading materials, supporting him, etc. and even now the loss still comes through in his life. I told him that he could have a child that could pass away in a car accident, you just never know and he said ‘it’s not the same…that’s not a choice…’ and he’s right. I wish I could fix this for him, but when people say time heals all is wrong.

  • LaurenGT

    March 24th, 2021 at 3:45 PM

    Hi Rebecca,

    I’m so sorry to hear of this loss. Check out our page on what to do in a mental health crisis in case you or your son need these resources: Getting help for your son sounds like a great place to start. Feel free to reach out to our customer support team for help finding a therapist in your area.

  • Rebecca

    March 24th, 2021 at 11:05 AM

    You always go to him and if he doesn’t want you there, then he’ll say so and then you remind him that you’re there for him any time he needs and leave without making him feel guilty for turning you away. At least this is my approach…

  • Bob

    March 27th, 2021 at 4:37 AM

    My son lost his best friend two years ago (you can find my original post if you scroll up in this thread).
    I highly recommend that your son to has a chat to a mental health professional. Talking to a professional helped my son in many more ways than we as parents could have anticipated.
    I wish you all the very best.

  • barry

    September 10th, 2021 at 7:28 PM

    Just be there to answer questions, that’s the best advice I can give , and sooner or later they will ask.

  • Dan

    May 28th, 2022 at 4:12 PM

    Very valuable information !!

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