It’s normal to experience sadness and to grieve after loss. But that doesn’t make it easy. Some people say grief is the most powerful thing that can be experienced in everyday life. It’s what happens after the loss of someone or something really important to you. Everyone experiences grief differently, so it can be hard to know how a young person might respond to loss. However, there are a lot of ways to support a young person experiencing grief.
Supporting a young person experiencing grief
What to expect?
Grief can affect almost every part of life, and sometimes makes the simplest tasks feel like climbing Mount Everest. Here are some of the things to look out for in someone who has just experienced a significant loss.
Don’t be surprised if the young person you’re supporting has strong and unpredictable mood swings. Grief can include an intense combination of the following: shock, disbelief, pain, intense sadness, longing, guilt (about the past, or about being happy in the future), anger, resentment, abandonment, confusion, anxiety, worry.
It might seem like the person you’re supporting is lost in a world of thought, and more distant than usual. Other ways thoughts can be impacted can include: trouble concentrating or focusing on everyday tasks, increased forgetfulness, a sense that the world doesn’t make sense any more, or that a young person can’t figure out their place in it.
Changes in a young person to watch out for when supporting someone experiencing grief might include: headaches, stomach aches, body aches, changes in eating and sleeping patterns, weight changes, feeling tired or just generally sick and run down.
You might notice the young person you’re supporting spending more time alone, or avoiding certain people or places. Don’t be surprised if they cry a lot, or have more unpredictable outbursts than usual.
It’s important to acknowledge that young people will respond to grief in different ways. Some young people will choose to express their grief through creative expression such as art or music. Others may want to talk about it, and some may appear to be unaffected and getting on with their life.
There will also be some young people who behave in ways that are disruptive, frustrating or risky. Some may turn to using alcohol or use drugs to try to cope with their grief. Whatever their response they will need time, support and understanding as they find their way through their grief.
How long will this go on for?
Most young people will carry on with their lives while moving through the grieving process, and not require professional support. For some however, the loss may contribute to the development of more serious mental health problems.
It’s common for people to be impacted by grief for varied lengths of time, but if there is still ongoing difficulty beyond 6 months in a number of domains as listed above, it’s important to seek professional support.
Sudden or unexpected loss can be particularly challenging. It can shake assumptions about how the world ‘should’ work in a safe, predictable and just way. If a young person has experienced sudden or unexpected loss, it’s important to consider earlier help seeking.
What can I do to support someone who is grieving?
Families are extremely important in supporting a young person who is grieving. Continuing your family life and encouraging your young person to stay connected with friends and activities will allow them to maintain a sense of safety and security, and to feel hopeful about the future. Loss can contribute to a sense that things are out of control for a young person. Helping them to regain some control can be important.
It can be particularly challenging for families to support each other when a family member has died, because everyone will grieve in different ways. Professional support might be helpful if you're finding it difficult to support each other through a loss.
Some other strategies that may be helpful in supporting a young person include:
Acknowledging their loss and the need to take time to grieve
Providing information about normal patterns of grief
To talk openly and honestly about the loss and your willingness to support them
Ask them what they might need from you
Be patient. Someone experiencing grief can be unpredictable. Responding to their needs in a way that is calm, consistent and responsive will help them to feel safe and connected with you.
Encouraging their continued participation in enjoyable activities such as sports or hobbies, and family activities
Supporting them as they gather stories and memories of the loved one in ways that appeal to them (e.g. writing, photos, journals, talking, blogs or memorials)
Helping them to anticipate times that may be particularly difficult, (e.g. Christmas, birthdays or anniversaries) and develop a plan for coping with these periods
Helping them find meaning in what has happened and foster a sense of hope for the future
Below we’ve got a brief list of do’s and don’ts that you may find helpful in your efforts to support someone going through grief.
Try to understand their point of view and their experience
Tell them you might not always get it right but that you’ll always try
Let them know you’re available to support them
Ask what they need from you
Support them to access professional support if it’s getting too hard or scary for you
Ask how they’re feeling
Arrange to do some fun things together. Grief can be a part of them – but certainly not all of them.
Direct them to additional resources and supports as listed below, if you think they need them.
Minimise or trivialise their experience. (For example: “It’s not that bad” or “Come on, toughen up”.)
Ignore or avoid their efforts to talk about this with you
Avoid opportunities where it might come up
Tell them to get over it
Forget that a healthy experience with grief can build significant lifelong abilities and strengths, and can also really build your relationship with them
Forget important anniversaries or dates or events
Getting help and support
The grieving process can take time and it’s not unusual for young people to experience ups and downs over months or years while dealing with grief. People generally find that things get easier as time passes; however, if the young person’s grief is persistent and severe, getting help is important. Accessing professional support is particularly important if the young person is grieving for someone who has died by suicide.
If you’re also experiencing grief, it is important to check in on yourself, and access support if you need it. Modelling proactive self-care behaviours can have a big impact on how your young person responds to their grief. It might help to think about the standard airline safety brief, where in the case of emergency they ask you to put your oxygen mask on before helping others, to make sure you’re able to be as helpful as possible.
If you would like to provide additional support to a young person, it might help to use this as a guide, depending on their needs.
1) See the additional resources listed below.
3) Check in with your local general practitioner (GP).
4) Find your nearest headspace centre or for online and phone support visit.
Other useful links
The headspace Clinical Reference Group oversee and approve clinical resources made available on this website.
Last reviewed 18 October 2017