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Grief and Bereavement

How should we deal with grief as we work with young people? Read to learn more.
Young male looking sad

The young people we serve, like many of us, may have experienced a death in the family during the pandemic, or they may be grieving the loss of close familial relationships and friendships due to social distancing and the closure of schools.

Grief is a process that occurs as an emotional response to the loss or death of someone or something an individual holds dear to them. Grief can affect an individual’s physical, social and emotional wellbeing. However, the way in which we experience grief is greatly influenced by socio environmental factors such as our cultural beliefs, our family and the community’s understanding of death. There is no standard way in which individuals grieve – we all grieve differently.

So, how should we deal with grief as we work with young people?

Validate their way of grieving as everyone experiences grief differently

They can be angry, sad, fearful, uncertain and numb. Use comments like:

“That sounds really painful”,
“I am not surprised that you feel angry”, or
“It’s perfectly okay to feel the way you do.”
These are all great ways of validating the young person’s emotional state and experience of grief. In particularly difficult conversations, it is also alright to comment:
“I honestly don’t know what to say to you right now to make things better, but I am glad you have put trust in me to share how you feel.”

Use Empathy

This means feeling with people, unlike sympathy, which is feeling sorry for people. Empathy should be central to how you approach this conversation with the young person. This will involve perspective taking, recognising the perspective and emotions of the young person.
Empathy is the choice to be vulnerable, to allow yourself to be introspective and connect with your own emotions and experiences, in order to better connect with the young person.
Your ability to empathise with a young person will be more impactful and reassuring than simply trying to say things you think will make them feel better, or pointing out the silver lining in their situation through ‘at least’ statements like, “At least they didn’t suffer”, or “At least you were there in the end”.
For more information on empathy, take a look at Brené Brown’s animated video on empathy – you’ll find a link in the See also section.
If the young person you are supporting reveals that they have been or are grieving the death or loss of someone or something they hold dear, it may be best to:
  • Ask whether they are comfortable to talk about who or what they are grieving.
  • Ask whether there is someone at home or within their personal lives that they can speak to about how they feel.
  • Ask whether the young person was able to say what they needed to the person before they died.
Cruse is the leading national charity within the UK supporting bereaved people. They offer resources and information that will be handy when speaking with a young person regarding bereavement.

PEP POINTS TASK suggestions

If the young person was not able to see their loved one before they passed away, it may be worth suggesting the activities listed below, as a way for the young person to express how they felt about their loved one. This has been found to provide young people with a sense of comfort when dealing with grief.
  • Writing letters, poems or keeping a memory box dedicated to their loved one.
    These are good ways that a young person could articulate and express how they feel about their loved one and the impact of their loss.
  • Create artwork.
    This is a great way for young people to channel those emotions that they find difficult to articulate, allowing them to explore and express how they are feeling.
  • Encourage the young person to ask questions.
    The death of a family member or friend can cause a young person to feel a lack of control and confusion. Getting answers to questions, no matter how big or small, can be a great source of comfort to a young person.
  • The young person you are working with may benefit from joining a community of young people who have also suffered a bereavement in their youth. Hope Again, the youth website of Cruse, offers a safe space where young people can learn to cope with grief and feel less alone.
If a young person is finding it particularly difficult to use the above methods and doesn’t want to speak to people at home, you can also signpost them to Childline on 0800 1111. They offer one-to-one counselling that young people can access between 9am-10pm and from 9pm-3.30 am.

Share your thoughts

  • What has been your experience of working with young people who are grieving?
  • Have you tried any of the methods listed above in the past. Have they proved useful?
  • Do you have any resources that you have found useful when working with a young person that is grieving?

Thinking back over all the three areas of physical health that we have covered, use the Comments section to share your thoughts on the interplay between the three areas and how they impact our young people.

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Youth Mental Health: Supporting Young People Using a Trauma Informed Practice

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