When adolescents suffer the death of someone they love, three variables have a major impact on how they react: how they already think of themselves, the presence of any depression, and their relative age. Bereaved adolescents who have a positive self-image (high self-concept) are more likely to have less depression, fear, loneliness, and confusion. Those adolescents who have an average self-concept typical show more depression, loneliness, and anger while those with a low self-concept show more confusion, but less anger. In short, according to a study by N. S. Hogan and D. B. Greenfield, after the death of a loved one, adolescents with a high self-concept experience a lower intensity of grief, and vice versa.
Age is another determinant of how an adolescent reacts to a death. The older the bereaved adolescent is, the more likely he/she will experience psychological distress and be willing to talk to others, especially friends. Younger bereaved adolescents, on the other hand, are more likely to experience physiological distress and be less willing to talk to friends.
Adolescence is an intense time – adolescents readily believe that no one has ever experienced life and feelings as deeply and strongly as they do – and grief is no exception. It is also a time for them to separate from the confines of their family environment and begin to find a place for themselves in the world. Initially, that place is with peers. The need to be part of the group puts the bereaved adolescent in a difficult situation – he/she is experiencing intense, seemingly unique grief reactions while, at the same time, not wanting to stand out from his/her peer group by “losing emotional control.” The result is that adolescents may either express their grief in sudden short outbursts, or suppress it so others do not consider them “weird.”
How can parents and other adults help bereaved adolescents? The first is by providing a safe, confidential place for him/her to talk about the death. J. N. McNeil suggested the following guidelines in 1986:
Be open to discussing whatever the bereaved adolescent wants to explore.
Actively listen while paying special attention to the feelings that underlie what he/she is saying.
Accept the adolescent’s feelings as real, important, and normal.
Be supportive by making responses that reflect acceptance and understanding of what the adolescent is trying to say.
Resist the temptation to solve the adolescent’s problems, but help the adolescent find his/her own solutions.
Provide frequent opportunities for talking and enjoying the company of the adolescent.
(If this sounds familiar, that is because it is – bereaved adults need the same thing!)
For those adolescents who are hesitant to talk to adults, a peer support group may provide an invaluable place for him/her to express feelings. A group environment provides a place where the bereaved adolescent can be one of many in the same situation and he/she does not have to fear “standing out from the crowd.”
Other activities that benefit bereaved adolescents are those that are frequently used to reduce stress, especially playing music or by keeping busy, with opportunities for talking about the loss.
While the loss of a loved one can be a very intense, emotional time for adolescents, it does not have to lead to ongoing psychological problems. In fact, as K. A. Oltjenbruns wrote in 1991, many adolescents realize that positive outcomes – a better appreciation for life, stronger emotional bonds with others, and greater emotional strength – can come out of a tragic experience. It is the job of parents, and other adults important in their lives, to help adolescents realize these possible outcomes.