Helping Teenagers Cope With Grief and Loss

National Caregivers Library experts answer questions about teenagers coping with grief and loss.

A reader writes:

“My sister recently passed away and I feel that my 15 year-old niece could benefit by talking to someone with professional experience. How do I find a good counselor with expertise in this area? Can insurance help with the cost? I’m also concerned about how to suggest something like this without her withdrawing even more. Do you have any thoughts about how I should approach her?”

Our hospice social worker with considerable experience working with dying patients and their families, replies:

“Grief is unique for each of us. Teenagers are no different, and grief is especially hard during the teen years because teens are trying to fit in with their peers and don’t want to be seen as different. When a teenager such as your 15-year-old niece loses a parent, she somehow feels different from her friends.

“From my experience working with teenagers, they often look to get their needs met in school, church groups, or community organizations they participate in. Teens will often depend on their friends to be their major support system.

“You may best support your niece by just letting her know that you care, sharing your feelings about the death of your sister, and allowing her the opportunity to talk, talk, talk. I also recommend checking with the local Hospice Agency in her community to see if they have any support groups for teens. Bereavement groups are an excellent way for teens to explore their grief, and Hospice Agencies generally have excellent bereavement programs staffed with experts in the field of grief and loss.”

Alma Hassell, the Night Chaplain at the Medical College of Virginia Hospitals of Virginia Commonwealth University, agrees:

“We must understand that this is a difficult time for teenagers because some of them do not like to be embarrassed or talk about feelings to adults. It is at this age the teen is interested in fitting in with other teens. Being “different” from their peer group is embarrassing.

“The best way we can help is to talk with them or encourage them to talk with us, although this may be difficult, especially if they have trouble trusting adults. Most teens tend to think no one understands them or cares about what they’re thinking or feeling, so an adult’s demonstration of caring may open up dialogue—maybe not right away, but hopefully in the near future.

“The one thing that is of the utmost importance is not to rush them. Rushing may cause a greater wedge between the adult and the teen. When talking to the teen about the possibility of getting help, let them know there’s no shame in seeing or talking to someone who can help them. Everyone needs help the crises in their lives, and teenagers need to understand that they are not alone in what they’re feeling or experiencing.

“If by chance you are not able to get the teen to talk about what he/she is feeling, the next step may be to involve the school counselor or social worker, nurse or school psychologists. These persons, if unable to talk directly to the teen, may have additional resources outside the school setting. Other contacts that might be helpful are: Good Grief Programs in that deal specifically with loss, grief, and/or bereavement, the YMCA/YWCA, or Mental Health Consultants. Most local United Way or Community Chest agencies know about programs that can provide resources to address specific problems. And don’t overlook the teen’s doctor or Clergy person.

“Many of these services may be free-of-charge or a small fee may be required. As for medical insurance paying for bereavement services, each policy is different, so you will need to check with the insurance company to find out. Keep in mind, however, that expense shouldn’t get in the way of getting help. Help the teen not get stuck in his/her grief, but help him/her to see that there is hope and living after the loss of a loved one.”

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