It’s normal to experience sadness and to grieve after the loss of someone or something that’s really important to you. But that doesn’t make it easy.
Everyone experiences grief differently. Our culture, gender, age, past experiences of loss, and belief systems can affect the way we grieve, so it can be hard to know how a young person might respond to loss. However, there are lots of ways you can support a young person experiencing grief.
Supporting a young person experiencing grief
Grief can affect almost every part of life, and can sometimes make the simplest tasks feel daunting and hard to accomplish. Here are some of the things to look out for in someone who has experienced 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 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, including not wanting to go to school, uni or TAFE. 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 other drugs to try to cope with their grief. Whatever the response they will need time, support and understanding as they find their way through their grief.
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 issues.
It’s common for people to be impacted by grief for varied lengths of time, but if they’re finding it hard to cope and their social, work or school life are being affected, then it’s a good idea to discuss seeking 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 seeking help sooner.
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
Talking openly and honestly about the loss and your willingness to support them
Asking them what they might need from you
Being 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, catching up with friends, 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
Direct them to additional resources and supports as listed below
Minimise or trivialise their experience (e.g., ‘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 working through the 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 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.
- See the additional resources listed below.
- Find an online or phone-based service you can access anonymously and free of charge (such as eheadspace, Kids Helpline or Lifeline).
- Check in with your local general practitioner (GP).
- Find your nearest headspace centre, or for online and phone support visit eheadspace.
Other useful links
- Parent helplines (in every state and territory of Australia) - search 'Parentline' along with your state or territory
- ReachOut – Grief and Loss
- Youth Beyond Blue – Grief and Loss
- What’s Your Grief?
- Sane Australia – Busting the Myths about Grief
- ReachOut WorryTime
The headspace Clinical Reference Group oversee and approve clinical resources made available on this website.
Last reviewed 27 April 2021