There are very few things in life that are harder to face than the sudden death of someone you care about. Whether it's a friend, a sibling or even someone you just sort of know, the loss of their life can make you feel like you have an enormous hole inside yourself.
It's especially difficult for young people to experience the tragic and unexpected loss of a friend, because it happens at a time when you are feeling like you're getting your life under control, and none of this "bad stuff" could happen to you. The shock of seeing that it actually can happen to someone close to you can make you feel pretty vulnerable yourself.
It also happens at a time in your life where you're usually putting some distance between yourself and your parents, who have been your main source of support. You may feel you need them more than ever, but your quest for independence also makes you not want to depend on them too much. This can result in great feelings of confusion.
So there's a lot that goes on in your mind, body and heart when someone close to you dies.
Grief is a weird thing — it affects every person differently. Like adults, teenagers grieve in their own time and in their own way. It may not even seem real to you at first. You may just feel numb and not really be able to react at all. For most people, this numbness will eventually go away and your body will feel the pain.
You may feel like you're crying all the time, and at the same time, another friend may not cry at all. You might feel angry with them because it doesn't seem to you like they're grieving enough, or taking the death of your friend seriously enough.
Some people grieve by wanting to take care of everybody else and make everybody else feel better. Some people just act completely crazy. Some people get caught up in thinking, "Why didn't it happen to me?" Odd as it may seem, some people laugh a lot when they are grieving.
It's important for the surviving friends to be gentle to each other. Be accepting of each other, because everyone grieves differently.
There are all kinds of physical and emotional symptoms you may experience as a part of grieving. Almost all of them are normal, especially at first. Some of them are listed below but there may be many, many others.
- No appetite.
- Tiredness or exhaustion, weakness.
- Actual physical illness.
- Unable to sleep — or unable to wake up — or frequent waking up during the night.
- Crying a lot.
- Nausea, stomach aches, or a feeling of hollowness in your stomach.
- Headaches or other body aches.
- Unable to focus or concentrate.
- Extreme sadness.
- Anger — at the person who died, at God or other higher power, at friends who don't seem to understand, at the person you may believe caused the death.
- Fear that the same thing might happen to someone else you love, or to you.
- Blaming yourself.
- Feeling overwhelmed.
If you find yourself wanting to act on your negative feelings, try to find ways that won't hurt other people. If you're tempted to yell, try yelling at people who are trained to listen, or at things that won't be hurt emotionally — like walls, trees, the sky, whatever. If you're tempted to hit, try punching pillows, punching bags or other soft things that won't hurt you. Use of alcohol or other drugs may dull your pain for a while, but not forever. They will create another problem you will need to deal with later.
What can you do to help yourself and each other?
- Be there for each other — just being together is a big help.
- Listen to one another's feelings.
- Don't feel guilty about what you're feeling.
- Talk about the person who died, and share your memories.
- Allow yourselves to cry. Crying is a wonderful way for your body to release it's emotions. No one should try and stop themselves from crying when they're grieving.
- Exercise alone or with others — it helps your body heal.
- Write in a journal; keep a written record of what you're feeling, and memories of your friend.
- Be gentle with each other, and respect each other's need to grieve differently.
- Even if it's hard, start getting back to your normal daily activities as soon as possible.
There are some things you could be feeling that might indicate you need some professional help in working through your grief. If you experience any of the following things, or if you see a friend experiencing these things, talk about it immediately to an adult that you trust. This could be a parent, a friend of a parent, a minister or priest, the leader of a youth group, a teacher, a school counselor or other counselors, a coach, or a doctor:
- Inability to sleep for more than a few days.
- Inability to eat for more than a few days.
- Losing complete interest in your daily activities.
- Feelings of wanting to be with the dead person.
- Feelings of wanting to kill yourself, or hurt yourself in some other way.
- Not wanting to go to school (especially if that's different from your usual behavior).
- A big drop in your grades.
- Use of alcohol, drugs or sex to take away your pain.
- Completely isolating yourself from your friends or family.
You will never forget what happened. If you are afraid to heal because you think you might forget your friend, don't worry — you will never forget. You will always have their memory. You'll always be sorry that you were unable to share life with your friend for many more years. However, in time, you will remember the happy memories more often than the painful ones that fill your mind now.
Dyregrov, K. & Dyregrov, A. (2005). Siblings after suicide — "The forgotten bereaved". Suicide and Life-Threatening Behavior, 35(6), 714-724.
Melhem, N., Day, N., Shear, K., Day, R., Reynolds, C., & Brent, D. (2004). Traumatic grief among adolescents exposed to a peer's suicide. American Journal of Psychiatry, 161(8), 1411-1416.
Williams, A. & Merten, M. (2009). Adolescents' online social networking following the death of a peer. Journal of Adolescent Research, 24(1), 67-90.
Helping Teenagers Cope with Grief — Alan D. Wolfelt, Ph.D. — If parents, teachers, and counselors are open, honest, and loving, the loss of someone loved can be a chance for young people to learn about both the joy and pain that comes from caring deeply for others.
How to Help a Grieving Teen — The Dougy Center — Teens respond better to adults who choose to be companions on the grief journey rather than direct it.
Living with Grief: Children, Adolescents, and Loss — Kenneth J. Doka, Ph.D. — This book features articles by leading educators and clinicians in the field of grief and bereavement. The "Voices" sections are the writings of children and adolescents. Includes a comprehensive resource list of national organizations and a useful bibliography of age-appropriate literature for children and adolescents.