University of Illinois Extension

Talking with Teens about Death

Patti Faughn, Family Life Educator

Teenagers understand that death is a fact - it is real, final, and irreversible. But, knowing how to cope with the feelings of loss can be a different matter. Some try to be strong and independent, handling it on their own. Some reach out to others for comfort and support. How do you help a teen dealing with grief?

Teens often look to their family for cues as to how to handle a death. Some relatives try to put up a brave front for the sake of the children, hiding their true feelings. Teens often learn to bury feelings as well. They may try to meet your expectations, but feel misunderstood, alienated, or angry.

Adults may also have difficulty knowing how to cope or what to say. When you are having difficulty trying to deal with your own grief ask a relative, friend, or minister to provide support to your teen. Don't make a teen "take over" while you grieve if he or she is also grieving.

Don't be afraid of silence if your teen is not ready or able to talk. Provide comfort and care by just being there. Rather than tell them how they should or should not feel, confirm their feelings and offer understanding for the difficult emotions involved with grief.

Help teens recognize the many emotions that can be a part of grief, but that all of us react to grief in different ways. Here are some common emotions that may accompany grief:

  • Numbness, shock, and disbelief - Especially when death is sudden or unexpected. These feelings provide a protective response that shields us from dealing with overwhelming emotions until we can face them. Our words are often "I don't believe it," or "it can't be true." The reactions of others may be to get us to face the truth, when we just need time to absorb the awfulness of what has happened. It is much better to say to a teen in this stage, "I know, it's hard for me to believe it, too."
  • Anger, frustration, and rage - It is common to feel angry with God, the doctor, the person who died, or ourselves. We may blame God for allowing the person to die. We may blame the doctor for not helping the person to get well. We may blame the person for smoking or driving too fast. We almost always blame ourselves for all the "if only" and "what ifs" we can think of. Teens may say things like, "God is not real" or "Life is not fair." Avoid reacting with "Don't say that" or "You don't mean that." Instead, affirm their feelings with, "You are very angry. I get angry too when life doesn't seem fair or things happen that don't make sense to me."
  • Depression, emptiness, and loneliness - Sometimes teens can feel so sad and empty they say, "I don't want to live anymore." Rather than reacting with, "Don't say that" or "You don't mean that," focus on listening. You might say, "Death is so hard to accept that sometimes we feel like we don't want to go on" or "You miss her so much now but a time will come when you will feel some happiness again." If your teen is overwhelmed with grief and still having difficulty with daily functioning after six months, it is time to seek professional help. Help him understand that just as you look for a skilled person to learn a new sport - like basketball or volleyball - it is helpful to let those who have skills in handling emotions guide us when we have to deal with a difficult loss.