A no-longer-so-little girl I know died today. It was anticipated, but no less sad because of it. When I worked with her most her favourite things were painting nails and pulling pranks. I don’t know if it’s a professional defence mechanism, something that comes with age, or an inevitable evolution of my beliefs, but I no longer struggle with the unfairness of it.
I certainly used to. When the first Hunger Games movie came out, my unsuspecting husband took me to the movies as a distraction from a little life ended too soon, only to witness 142 minutes of ugly crying because ‘We should be protecting them – they’re just kids.’ But I’ve accepted the defeat of it – sometimes we cannot protect them, and there is no fairness to it.
At the moment my attention turns to supporting the people left behind, her friends, who are similarly too young to be dealing with this, but are left no option.
This early interaction with death is overwhelming, but a pivotal point for learning. This grief acts as a blueprint for not just how these young people process death, but their approach to the many challenges they will face in life.
If you are struggling to know how to help a teenager with their grief, know that your concern is evidence of your care. There is nothing that can make this not awful, so don’t make your aim to stop the tears, but rather to support them in what they need. Respecting their needs shows them that you believe in their ability to know what’s best for themselves. You’re doing good.
Similarly, there are some aspects of grief that it might help your young person to hear –
- It’s normal. Grief is the human reaction to losing someone you love, not a fault. Grief needs to be felt, not fixed. You might be angry, sad, confused, guilty, and any combination of those things and more. Find ways to express how you’re feeling- maybe writing, talking, painting, punching a punching bag, screaming into a pillow, singing, dancing, or just crying. As long as you’re not hurting anyone (yourself included) then it’s not too crazy. Do what feels right to you.
- Grief is physically exhausting- be gentle with yourself. As well as being kind to yourself emotionally, be good to yourself physically- nourish your body, and try to get out in the fresh air. Grief is a tricky balancing act between feeling the pain and coming up for air- a change in scenery or something to distract your mind can help to feel like you’re not drowning, renewing your energy for when the next wave of grief comes.
- Say the things. If that sentence makes sense to you, then it may be just what you need to hear. Say the things you wish you had said. If you have spiritual beliefs that include life beyond death, then the focus could be on saying them to the person who died- writing it out, saying it, or sending it skywards on a balloon. It might be more important for you to express yourself to the people around you- to other people who loved the person you lost or to people who love you. Marking their death with a ritual, inviting friends to gather together, share their stories, and doing something which honours the person who died can be a way to express yourself and invite others to do the same. People often find that they have unspoken thoughts around forgiveness, saying goodbye, and love.
- Do something in their honour. Doing something that the person who died loved to do, that you did together, or that they would be proud of, can help to build a new kind of connection with them. It can give you a focus point too; They say grief is love with nowhere to go, and having a meaningful project to work towards can give that love a destination.
- It won’t always feel this hard. I’m not going to say that it gets easier – some people feel like it does, and others feel like it’s always just as painful, but they get better at dealing with it. Grief isn’t linear – time moving forward isn’t a measure of your distance from the grief – and when another wave of grief hits, go through the steps again. But with time the waves tend to get further apart, and you have more space and energy to catch your breath in between.
About the author
Melanie Rolfe has worked in the paediatric chronic illness and bereavement field for a decade, empowering young people with the tools to be all they can be through tough times. With qualifications across psychology, adolescent wellbeing, positive psychology, and palliative care, her passion for the sector is matched by her thirst for learning. She aims to bring tools for thriving to all young people through The Paper Planes Project – a school-based program that equips students with internal resources for emotional intelligence, resilience, and grit.