Supporting adolescents coping with illness and loss

Helping an adolescent who is grieving the illness or loss of a loved one can be a difficult and at times overwhelming experience. Adolescence is, in and of itself, a stressful time. The adolescent is learning to think independently yet still needs the support and guidance of trusting adults. They are also in the process of clarifying who they are and commonly try on beliefs and values that are different from their parents. Religious beliefs are questioned, as they want to understand WHY. So too, are views on illness and death just evolving. Grieving adolescents can feel alone and different from their peers at a time when there is a strong desire to be like their peers. Creating a safe and caring environment in which the adolescent can explore and express grief-related issues is of the utmost importance. As we focus on our skills of listening, we are helping the adolescent to reflect upon and clarify his or her situation. We are helping with the transition from "What am I going to do?" to "How am I going to do it?"

Helpful suggestions:
  • Along with providing opportunities for adolescents to express their difference feelings related to a loved one's illness or death, give them chances to get involved in social and sorts activities    adolescents usually need to take a break from mourning.
  • Seeking support is typically difficult for adolescents to do, and they often react negatively to the idea of attending counseling. Making the effort to reach out to adolescents by listening and letting them know you care is often the first step to adolescents accepting help.
  • As with any situation, setting appropriate limits is very important and lets grieving adolescents know that they can express themselves in safe ways. This kind of structure is needed during what can be a chaotic time.
  • That sense of shock that we all experience when a loved one is sick or has died may last longer for adolescents as they struggle to cope with painful realities. Even if the length of the illness was extended and the death expected, adolescents still need time to understand all of the changes.
  • The struggle to feel "normal" and "fit in" is often present with adolescents and is only intensified when an illness or loss affects a family. The family is creating a new normal as everyone is adapting to many changes. Getting adolescents involved in supports groups that focus on grief is a wonderful way for them to feel accepted by their peers and express their feelings openly. At this stage of development, peer interaction is often more powerful and influential than advice from adults.
  • Providing avenues for expressive arts such as drawing, writing poetry, painting, and journaling can be very helpful. Adolescents can also find comfort in music.
  • Talking to your adolescent about creating rituals that would be special to them also helps in the grieving process. Organizing photographs, making a collage or memory book, and lighting a special candle are just a few ideas.
Typical grief responses in adolescents:
  • Worrying they can't remember specifics about the person who died
  • Down playing the significance despite the significance
  • Fearful someone else close to them could die
  • Needing details about the death
  • Frequent dreams about the person who died
  • Feeling they are "in shock', constantly thinking "I can't believe it"
  • Questioning God, anger at God, or questioning their faith
  • Mood changes due to the smallest things, may be suddenly brought to tears
When adolescents are affected by illness or loss, the adults around them are also under stress. Adults may look for support from adolescents during this physically and emotionally exhausting time. If adolescents take on more tasks in the home, adults should be sensitive to how many extra responsibilities they give them. Some adolescents are more than willing to quietly accept responsibilities that are really too overwhelming for them. Creating a dependency on adolescents to the point where they are taking on an adult role in the family is something to be careful of if care-giving demands increase. Letting them help out with chores, baby sitting for a few hours at a time, or running errands on occasion are some positive ways adolescents can offer support when someone close to them is sick or has died.

There is no magic formula. Adolescents often want more freedom to handle adult situations. They are at an age where they appear more mature and are focused on increased independence. Even though it may take more time and effort to figure out ways to communicate and establish health boundaries, including your adolescents in this process helps everyone get through this difficult time together. Open, honest communication with adolescents not only serves to strengthen your relationship with them, but also enhances their ability to cope with difficult experiences in the future. Remember, grief expressed is grief diminished.

Prepared by PATHways Center for Grief & Loss. Hospice of Lancaster County
685 Good Drive . P.O. Box 4125 . Lancaster . PA 17604-4125
717-391-2413 . hospiceoflancaster.org . Permission to copy required