How to Support a Young Person through Grief
How to Support a Young Person through Grief
Grief is part of life. But just because it’s natural doesn’t mean we’re expected to know how to process it all on our own. We need to be shown what remains in our world after someone we love has died. We need as much community support and comfort as we can get—at any age, but especially when we’re kids.
“Even though loss can be an uncomfortable topic to discuss, it’s one of the most important times to show up for your child or a young person in your life who is experiencing and going through that grief,” says Nina Westbrook, a licensed marriage and family therapist, a mom of three, and the founder of The Little Ark and Minibrook. Opening the door to the hard conversation, says Westbrook, helps them know that the feelings they’re going through are normal.
A Q&A with Nina Westbrook, LMFT
Whether you are a young person or an adult, when we go through something as big as losing someone who has a significant impact on our lives, we all revert to being like a child in some ways.
What’s important is to acknowledge that any response to grief is natural. Adolescence is a time in our lives where we need the most community support and the most comfort. Even though loss can be an uncomfortable topic to discuss, when your child or a young person in your life is going through that grief, that’s one of the most important times to show up for them.
The first thing to understand is that there’s no linear process to grieving.
Start by explaining that how they’re feeling and the wide range of emotions that they’re experiencing throughout the process are normal. Also, it’s important to let them know that death is a natural part of life. Even though loss and death can seem taboo for us to talk about in our society—just because we don’t always have the right words or maybe we feel like we don’t want to say the wrong things, so we don’t say them at all—they’re such an important part of life.
When someone is experiencing grief or loss, especially for the first time, they don’t know exactly what they’re experiencing or if it’s okay. Given that, they might have a lot of questions.
It’s crucial to have an open dialogue and make sure to acknowledge that the feelings and the emotions they’re going through are all normal. Start there and open up the lines of communication so that they feel free to express their needs or talk about the person who has died.
It’s perfectly normal and perfectly okay to share grief. When you go through a shared experience with the people closest to you, you have a built-in support system. This support is so important because you know that they’re experiencing their own grief in regard to their lost loved one as well. Keeping the lines of communication open and talking about the person and about the good memories that you all shared with the person is a huge part of the healing process.
Metaphors can be a great tool to help children move through their grieving process and understand death as a part of life. Maybe you use a movie or a book as a metaphor and explain to them that the last scene or the last page just means that it is over, but there are so many things that were said, done, and experienced throughout the story that you can draw from, especially in remembrance of a person’s life. Emphasize not focusing so much on just that last scene or last page of a movie or a book.
Open up and share your own emotions, too. You can be an example and model that openness to them.
When someone is experiencing a loss of great magnitude, feelings of anger can come up. It may be anger at life in general, or anger at the person for leaving them, or anger over something that may have happened while that person was alive.
It’s important to validate those feelings. This is crucial because when those feelings aren’t validated or we feel like we need to suppress them, we hold on to them more tightly and can develop feelings of guilt that are hard to unlearn. Any feeling associated with grief is a natural part of the process, even if it’s an uncomfortable one like anger toward the person who has died.
If someone is experiencing repetitive loss, there could be trauma present. The best way to manage a child’s experience with trauma is to seek professional help and have them speak to a therapist.
Continue to discuss their feelings and make sure they feel they have a safe place to share their emotions.
Grief is not a linear process. Over the course of some months, you might start to see improvement in personality or behavior, like maybe not crying every day and crying only once a week. One of the tools that you could use to move forward in processing this grief is to choose something that symbolizes the person they’ve lost. It could be a date when you do something special to honor that person or an object that they keep with them. If it’s a small child, it may be a teddy bear or something that reminds them or signifies the person that they’ve lost.
Giving the grief a place to live or a specific period of time or a day where they pay homage can be a helpful tool. This allows an opportunity for people to continue to grieve, but as months go on and life continues to move forward, they’re able to separate that grief from everyday life. That designation can help them get back into their daily commitments like school or Zoom or sports or whatever the case may be. When the child is able to transition back to their version of normal, then you know they’ve successfully integrated that grieving process—and their love for the person they’ve lost, which has taken a new shape—into the fabric of their daily life.
In our society, there are lots of people who are caught up in comparing their own grief and their own loss to others. But there’s no limit to empathy, and there’s no limit to suffering.
We each are entitled to validate our own grief and our own suffering. We can have empathy for ourselves, and we can have empathy for others. It’s okay to have our own experience and our own grief, and it is valid to grieve in a way that is best suited to us.
Nina Westbrook is a licensed marriage and family therapist. She provided therapy and counseling to families in Los Angeles through Antioch University Counseling Center before moving to Oklahoma and working with INTEGRIS Mental Health, one of the largest hospital companies in Oklahoma. Wanting to provide more educationally focused services, she worked with Project HOPE to provide a safe space for students. She paused her active practice to pursue entrepreneurship: She is the founder of The Little Ark, a lifestyle boutique in Oklahoma City that offers fun and educational classes for families, and Minibrook, an epicene children’s apparel brand with adaptable heirloom pieces designed in Los Angeles, which will make its debut this summer.