How to Help a Teen Grieve the Loss of a Friend

Sad teen boyWhat 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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The preceding article was solely written by the author named above. Any views and opinions expressed are not necessarily shared by GoodTherapy.org. Questions or concerns about the preceding article can be directed to the author or posted as a comment below.

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  • suzy

    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

    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

    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

    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

    Catherine Boyer, MA, LCSW

    January 15th, 2015 at 6:30 AM

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

  • Tessa

    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

    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

    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

    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

    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

    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

    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.

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