5 min read
sad teenager with her head in her hands

The unexpected death of friends and fellow classmates is traumatizing for children and adolescents, whether the person who has passed is well known or not. The shock of the first days and weeks is the beginning of a grief journey that you can help them with.

As a parent or guardian, you may not have all the answers. However, it is important to let your children know that you are there if they have questions. Provide honest (age appropriate) information when they ask. Youth should know that their friend’s death is something they can talk about with you.

Grief in Children

The Harvard Child Bereavement Study found that grief does not end at a particular time for children and adolescents. Contrary to societal beliefs that tend to say you need to move on, grief is not something youth just get over or grow out of. It may help to know that there are four key aspects to processing grief:

  • Learning to recognize emotions and other changes resulting from loss.
  • Later, developing a new type of relationship with the deceased based on remembrance.
  • As people move forward, absorbing the experience into their lives as part of the story of life.
  • Finding meaning from or in the experience of loss.

In the immediate days and weeks after loss, it is natural to feel frightened or worried. It does not help to avoid talking about it, but it does help when adults keep a calming routine for everyone.

Understanding the Grieving Process

As individuals grieve, they work through what it means to have lost a friend, relative, or classmate. They learn to cope with a new normal, one in which they are without that person. Some types of loss are easier to deal with than others.

Right after death–and perhaps lasting for weeks–is the stage of acute grief. In the early stages, an individual may experience waves of distress, sadness, and shock and have trouble concentrating, eating, and sleeping. This may affect school work or show up as lack of motivation or inconsistent outbursts. Everyone expresses acute grief differently, so find various ways to support young people (hugs, sitting with them, talking, engaging in some sort of creative project, etc.) during this difficult time.

Typically, grief evolves into what is called integrated grief. In this lifelong stage, the grieving person has accepted the reality of the loss and returned to previous daily routines. This does not mean that the friend or classmate is forgotten. It also does not mean that pain and sadness is gone when they are remembered. The grieving person has just learned to cope with the situation. People sometimes feel guilty if they stop thinking of the loss every day, but this is a sign that the grief is beginning to integrate. The loss has become part of life.

Sometimes grief does not work its way out. This is called complicated grief. This may happen because the grieving person or family was in a difficult situation when the death occurred, the death was unexpected, or too many losses occurred at once. Complicated grief may continue for years, and the person may not move on. It may be necessary to seek mental health assistance to resolve difficulties associated with the loss.

Tips for Caring for Your Child During the Grieving Process

Your young person will feel days of extreme stress and sadness. When your child feels stressed, focus on bereavement-related wellness goals. The following are tips that can help parents, guardians, and other adults in a youth’s life be supportive during the grieving process.

Tip 1: Maintain Good Communication

Open parent-youth communication may help anticipate problems that grieving can cause. However, remember that everyone grieves in their own way, and young people have their own ways as unique people. Listening and being understanding is the first step.

Listening is helpful. Listen by leaning in with your body language, making eye contact, and genuinely trying to understand your young person’s feelings. Make time to be together. Your teenager knows that you cannot fix their problems. However, when you show them your sadness, anger, or anxiety, it helps them to know that you are not afraid of these emotions, even if you can’t fix problems.

Reflect on your own feelings (at an age appropriate level). You might say, “I’ve been anxious lately,” or “I just want to hug you a lot right now.” When you share your feelings, it shows them that it is normal for them to share their feelings, no matter what emotion they are feeling (including no feeling).

Help youth express themselves by teaching them to say, “I feel…” When young people learn to identify and name their current experiences and feelings, they can work to address them. If they have trouble naming feelings, ask them to share what part of their body might be anxious, happy, or sad or what part they want to move.

Don’t say, “You should.” There is no should. No one can choose the way they will react to unexpected death. What you can control is the way you react to the feelings.

Reassure your youth by putting death in context. Even if this death was unexpected, there are times in anyone’s life that unexpected death happens. Youth have less life experience than you do. When your young person is ready, invite them to think forward about how to commemorate lost friends. Faith communities may help with this, but commemoration may also be more personal or more community oriented.

Tip 2: Help Youth Regain a Sense of Control

Losing a friend, relative, or classmate may make young children or a teenager feel insecure about the future. Life may also be more chaotic as events are organized in response to loss. The loss of routines might increase the feelings of helplessness or loss of control. Check in with everyone in your family, maybe by asking a simple question:

  • “On a scale of one to ten, where ten is upset and one is totally happy, how are you feeling today?”
  • “Is there anything you can or want to do to shift that feeling one more step toward a one?”
  • “Is this a day for self-care?”

Take time for special check-ins during an activity that you normally do together or during a new special time. Routines are soothing and can help your child begin to regain a sense of stability.

Tip 3: Building Resilience

Resilience comes from having enough support, as well as paying attention to your needs. Staying healthy will help you and your child be resilient. You can do simple things, so when you are overwhelmed with the tasks for the day, your health is strong. As you stay healthy, you model healthy habits for your young person.

  • Stay hydrated. Remember to drink water throughout the day, even when you are in shock.
  • Holding your breath is a typical stress reaction. When you feel stressed, exhale slowly from time to time. Take a pause for yourself.
  • Eat well. Pay extra attention to routines and sit down with your family to eat. Prepare and eat vegetables and fruits when you can.
  • Get out of your home for fresh air, and take a friend, dog, or your kids. You don’t have to talk–just connect with nature.
  • Plan for health. If you find yourself mindlessly eating, or over-consuming alcohol or other substances (including tobacco), stop and think about how you are feeling. Exhale. What can you plan as an alternative?
  • Include your young person/people. Talk to your family about how to be healthy. Stay positive. Reward ideas and try things together. You might begin a new routine.

Programs in Alabama to Help Children Deal with Grief

The weight of grief on a child or adolescent can be crushing. There are programs in Alabama that are available to help young people process grief.


Other Alabama Cooperative Extension System grief-related resources include the publications Helping Children and Adolescents Cope with Suicide and After the Death of a Parent: Supporting Your Grieving Teenager.