Grief and the Young Person
If someone close to you has died, you may be feeling many different emotions. You may besad, worried, or scared. You might be shocked, unprepared, or confused. You might be feeling angry, cheated, relieved, guilty, exhausted, or just plain empty. Your emotions might be stronger or deeper than usual or mixed together in ways you’ve never experienced before.
You might also notice that your loss is affecting what you’re thinking about and how you behave. If you’re grieving, you might be having trouble concentrating, sleeping, eating, or feeling interested in the things you usually enjoy. You might be trying to act like you feel OK (even if you don’t) because you want to be strong for someone else. And you may wonder if you will ever get over losing someone who means so much to you.
All of these emotions can be natural reactions to the death of someone close. They’re part of the process of grieving.
What Is Grief?
Grief is the emotion people feel when they experience a loss. There are many different types of loss, and not all of them are related to death. A person can also grieve over the breakup of an intimate relationship or after a parent moves away from home.
Grief is a natural reaction to the loss of someone important to you. Grief is also the name for the healing process that a person goes through after someone close has died. The grieving process takes time, and the healing usually happens gradually.
Although everyone experiences grief when they lose someone, grieving affects people in different ways. How it affects you partly depends on your situation and relationship with the person who died.
The circumstances under which a person dies can influence grief feelings. For example, if someone has been sick for a long time or is very old, you may have expected that person’s death. Although it doesn’t necessarily make it any easier to accept (and the feelings of grief will still be there), some people find that knowing someone is going to die gives them time to prepare. And if a loved one suffered a lot before dying, a person might even feel a sense of relief when the death occurs. If the person who has died is very young, though, you may feel a sense of how terribly unfair it seems.
Losing someone suddenly can be extremely traumatic, though, no matter how old that person is. Maybe someone you know died unexpectedly – as a result of violence or a car accident, for example. It can take a long time to overcome a sudden loss because you may feel caught off guard by the event and the intense feelings that are associated with it.
Losing someone because he or she committed suicide can be especially difficult to deal with. People who lose friends or family members to suicide may feel intense despair and sadness because they feel unable to understand what could have led to such an extreme action. They may even feel angry at the person – a completely normal emotion. Or they could feel guilty and wonder if there was something they might have done to prevent the suicide. Sometimes, after a traumatic loss, a person can become depressed and may need extra help to heal.
If you’ve lost someone in your immediate family, such as a parent, brother, or sister, you may feel cheated out of time you wanted to have with that person. It can also feel hard to express your own grief when other family members are grieving, too. Some people may hold back their own grief or avoid talking about the person who died because they worry that it may make a parent or other family member sad.
Grief can cause some people to feel guilty for no reason. Depending on the circumstances, some people might wonder if something they did – or didn’t do – caused the person’s death. Others might think if only they had been better people that their loved ones might not have died. These things aren’t true, of course – but sometimes feelings and ideas like this are just a way of trying to make sense of something that’s difficult to understand.
All of these feelings and reactions are OK – but what can people do to get through them? How long does grief last? Will things ever get back to normal? And how will you go on without the person who has died?
Coping with Grief
The grieving process is very personal and individual – each person goes through his or her grief differently. Some people reach out for support from others and find comfort in good memories. Others become very busy to take their minds off the loss. Some people become depressed and withdraw from their peers or go out of the way to avoid the places or situations that remind them of the person who has died. Just as people feel grief in many different ways, they handle it differently, too.
For some people, it may help to talk about the loss with others. Some do this naturally and easily with friends and family, others talk to a professional therapist. Some people may not feel like talking about it much at all because it’s hard to find the words to express such deep and personal emotion or they wonder whether talking will make them feel the hurt more. This is fine, as long you find other ways to deal with your pain.
A few people may act out their sorrow by engaging in dangerous or self-destructive activities. Doing things like drinking, drugs, or cutting yourself to escape from the reality of a loss may seem to numb the pain, but the feeling is only temporary. The person isn’t really dealing with the pain, only masking it, which makes all those feelings build up inside and only prolongs the grief.
If your pain just seems to get worse, or if you feel like hurting yourself or have suicidal thoughts, tell someone you trust about how you feel.
What to Expect
It may feel impossible to recover after losing someone you love. But grief does get gradually better and become less intense as time goes by. To help get you through the pain, it can help to know some of the things you might expect during the grieving process.
The first few days after someone dies can be intense, with people expressing strong emotions, perhaps crying and comforting each other, and gathering to express their support and condolences to the ones most affected by the loss.
Family and friends often participate in rituals that may be part of their religious, cultural, community, or family traditions – such as memorial services, wakes, or funerals. These activities can help people get through the first days after a death and honor the person who died. People might spend time together talking and sharing memories about the person who died. This may continue for days or weeks following the loss as friends and family bring food, send cards, or stop by to visit.
Many times, people show their emotions during this time. But sometimes a person can be so surprised or overwhelmed by the death that he or she doesn’t show any emotion right away – even though the loss is very hard. For example, Joey’s friends expected he’d be really upset at his mom’s funeral, so they were surprised that he was smiling and talking with people as if nothing had happened. When they asked him about it, Joey said that seeing his friends at the funeral cheered him up because it reminded him that some things would still be the same. Joey was able to cry and talk about how he felt when he was alone with his dad after the funeral.
Sometimes, when the rituals associated with grieving end, people might feel like they should be “over it” because everything seems to have gone back to normal. When people who are grieving first go back to their normal activities, it might be hard to put their hearts into everyday things. Many people go back to doing regular things after a few days or a week. But although they may not talk about their loss as much, the grieving process continues.
It’s natural to continue to have feelings and questions for a while after someone dies. It’s also natural to begin to feel somewhat better. A lot depends on how your loss affects your life. It’s OK to feel grief for days, weeks, or even longer, depending on how close you were to the person who died.
No matter how you choose to grieve, there’s no one right way to do it. The grieving process is a gradual one that lasts longer for some people than others. There may be times when you worry that you’ll never enjoy life the same way again, but this is a natural reaction after a loss.
Caring for Yourself
The loss of someone close to you can be stressful. It can help you to cope if you take care of yourself in certain small but important ways. Here are some that might help:
- Remember that grief is a normal emotion. Know that you can (and will) heal from your grief.
- Participate in rituals. Memorial services, funerals, and other traditions help people get through the first few days and honor the person who died.
- Be with others. Even informal gatherings of family and friends bring a sense of support and help people not to feel so isolated in the first days and weeks of their grief.
- Talk about it when you can. Some people find it helpful to tell the story of their loss or talk about their feelings. Sometimes a person doesn’t feel like talking, and that’s OK, too. No one should feel pressured to talk.
- Express yourself. Even if you don’t feel like talking, find ways to express your emotions and thoughts. Start writing in a journal about the memories you have of the person you lost and how you’re feeling since the loss. Or write a song, poem, or tribute about the person who died. You can do this privately or share it with others.
- Exercise. Exercise can help your mood. It may be hard to get motivated, so modify your usual routine if you need to.
- Eat right. You may feel like skipping meals or you may not feel hungry – but your body still needs nutritious foods.
- Join a support group. If you think you may be interested in attending a support group, ask an adult or school counselor about how to become involved. The thing to remember is that you don’t have to be alone with your feelings or your pain.
- Let your emotions be expressed and released. Don’t stop yourself from having a good cry if you feel one coming on. Don’t worry if listening to particular songs or doing other activities is painful because it brings back memories of the person that you lost; this is common. After a while, it becomes less painful.
- Create a memorial or tribute. Plant a tree or garden, or memorialize the person in some fitting way, such as running in a charity run or walk (a breast cancer race, for example) in honor of the lost loved one.
Getting Help for Intense Grief
If your grief isn’t letting up for a while after the death of your loved one, you may want to reach out for help. If grief has turned into depression, it’s very important to tell someone. How do you know if your grief has been going on too long? Here are some signs:
- You’ve been grieving for 6 months or more and you aren’t feeling any better.
- You feel depressed.
- Your grief is so intense that you feel you can’t go on with your normal activities.
- Your grief is affecting your ability to concentrate, sleep, eat, or socialize as you normally do.
- You feel you can’t go on living after the loss or you think about suicide, dying, or hurting yourself.
It’s natural for loss to cause people to think about death to some degree. But if a loss has caused you to think about suicide or hurting yourself in some way, or if you feel that you can’t go on living after your loss, it’s important that you tell someone right away.
Talking with a professional counsellor can help because it allows you to share about your loss and express strong feelings. Many counselors specialize in working with teens who are struggling with loss and depression. If you’d like to talk to a therapist and you’re not sure where to begin, ask an adult or school counselor. Your doctor may also be able to recommend someone.
Will I Ever Get Over This?
Well-meaning friends and family might tell a grieving person they need to “move on” after a loss. Unfortunately, that type of advice can sometimes make people hesitate to talk about their loss, or make people think they’re grieving wrong or too long, or that they’re not normal. Every person takes his or her own time to heal after a loss. The way someone grieves a particular loss and the time it takes is very individual.
It’s important for grieving people to not drop out of life, though. If you don’t like the idea of moving on, maybe the idea of “keeping on” seems like a better fit. Sometimes it helps to remind yourself to just keep on doing the best you can for now. If you feel sad, let yourself have your feelings and try not to run away from your emotions. But also keep on doing things you normally would such as being with friends, caring for your pet, working out, or doing your schoolwork.
Going forward and healing from grief doesn’t mean forgetting about the person you lost. Getting back to enjoying your life doesn’t mean you no longer miss the person. And how long it takes until you start to feel better isn’t a measure of how much you loved the person. With time, the loving support of family and friends, and your own positive actions, you can find ways to cope with even the deepest loss.