Adolescents are living within the threshold of adulthood.
During these years, they will experience more physical, mental and emotional changes than they thought possible.
Amid all these changes and transitions, one of the most damaging events to an adolescent’s identity can be the death of a loved one.
By the time children reach their adolescent years (ages 10 to 19), most of them are mature enough to understand death as being an irreversible and inevitable fact of life.
Unlike preadolescent children, adolescent children do not need adults to explain what death is to them. Instead, they need assistance in understanding and navigating the complicated emotions that come from grief.
Some adolescents may become more irritable and prone sporadically to lash out in anger. Others may experience anxiety or guilt and may bargain with themselves, thinking the death would have been avoided if he or she did something different.
The most concerning of all these coping mechanisms is acting recklessly and engaging in harmful behaviors, such as drug experimentation or reckless driving.
Psychologists agree that most adolescents attempt to deal with their grief privately to protect their developing sense of identity and to not risk standing out from everyone else by looking or acting differently.
Because of this, there is a greater risk of adolescents not properly dealing with their grief and engaging in some of the harmful behaviors previously mentioned.
Adolescents’ tendency to deal privately with their grief sounds very similar to the lament of Psalm 13. “How long, Lord? Will you forget me forever? How long will you hide your face from me? How long must I wrestle with my thoughts and day after day have sorrow in my heart?”
David’s words in this psalm sound very similar to the inner conflict that adolescents can feel when dealing with grief. Their isolation can make them feel like they are completely alone in their grief.
Adults’ main goal should be to help adolescents realize they are not alone and to help guide these young adults out of this isolation so that they can genuinely feel and express what David says at the end of this psalm. “But I trust in your unfailing love; my heart rejoices in your salvation. I will sing the Lord’s praise, for he has been good to me” (Psalm 13:5-6).
Congregational leaders need to be vigilant in noticing abnormal behaviors because adolescents are often experts at masking their grief and bottling up their emotions.
One of the main responsibilities for congregational leaders is to help adolescents acknowledge and cope with their feelings in a healthy way.
In Daniel Schaefer’s book, How Do We Tell The Children?, he asks, “What do children want to know? A fourteen-year-old who lost his or her father four years ago stated, ‘We want honesty! … They never told me. It made me feel like I was not important enough to know.’”
Even if the adult did not have complete answers, another child commented, “Then at least we’d be together knowing we were hurting and upset, and I wouldn’t be left alone.”
If congregational leaders’ main desire is for adolescents to effectively grow up to be stable, healthy adults, then they need to make sure they treat adolescents like people who understand grief and have the capacity to deal with it.
They need to talk with adolescents about their emotions, helping them develop the ability to handle the emotions and to understand what life looks like without their loved ones.
Furthermore, they need to teach parents how to help their children cope with their grief since the parents are the ones who are present for the majority of a child’s grief.
The most important thing to remember is to be honest with adolescents, to not be afraid to be vulnerable with them and to simply be present with them.
Adults also need to know that it is OK to be vulnerable themselves and to seek help if they are unable to give the child the support necessary.
While this can be a humbling truth, sometimes one of the most loving acts adults can do is recognize they cannot fully help their children deal with their grief and instead connect them with a mental health professional to help them process their grief.
Death is an unavoidable aspect of life – a reality that has become more evident ever since COVID-19 entered the world.
The grief that comes from the death of a loved one is an unwanted companion that appears to creep up unexpectedly.
At the end of the day, congregational leaders’ ultimate goal is to show children they are never truly alone when dealing with grief.
Children need to know they have a God who loves them and walks alongside them to help them through their grief.
Editor’s note: This is the second of a two-part series on ministering to adolescents in times of grief. Part one is available here. This article is part of an ongoing series focused on engaging the emerging generations of faith leaders. If you know anyone who might be interested, encourage him or her to submit his or her article for consideration to firstname.lastname@example.org.