..The Intuitive Times
Healing the Heart


Grief Counselling with Adolescents

by Sister Donna Egan, M.Ed, CCC

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Adolescents and young children are subject to many losses beginning with the loss of pets, of a home/neighbourhood due to family mobility and loss of grandparents and other relatives. Some experience prematurely, the loss of loved ones such as parents, siblings or very close friends. These latter types of losses have the greatest impact on young people.

The varied psychological, behavioural, social and physical reactions to loss is what is terms the "process of grief". In grief work, the goal is to provide the opportunity for the expression of feelings and to assure the bereaved person that these feelings are normal. This process can be quite complex for the adolescent who is also experiencing various emotional changes at this time in life. The caregiver, whether this person be a parent or counsellor, provides the atmosphere in which the adolescent is given the freedom to share his/her feelings and questions surrounding the loss. Caregivers can enhance this process by sharing their own feelings associated with present and past losses.

It has been my experience in providing grief counselling that adolescents carefully choose when they wish to do their grief work. They have taught me to wait until they are ready - perhaps it is the period of time when they experience the most intense emotional pain. We, as counsellors/caregivers have to respect that "readiness" to approach help with grief and not expect adolescents to begin the grief work when we think they should. It is a very difficult step for some to take, especially if they have not been guided in recognizing their feelings from a very early age. For these adolescents, the grief process may be seen in their behaviours, such as aggressive acts or social withdrawal. These are signals that they are experiencing the natural feelings of anger, frustration and sadness connected with loss. For the adolescent, these feelings are often unconscious causing them a great deal of confusion.

When an adolescent does decide to approach a caregiver for help with a significant loss, it is critical to communicate to her/him at the outset that these feelings are very normal. It is essential to emphasize as well that each person experiences these feelings of sadness, disbelief, anger and confusion in his/her own way. Each person's response to loss is a unique journey. There are so-called stages of grief: shock and denial stage, a period for expression of intense feelings and a time of healing and acceptance. These stages are not linear nor clear-cut. In journeying with the bereaved, the experience of these "stages" seem cyclical - ebbing back and forth as time moves onward. Young persons fluctuate in this world of numerous feelings and reactions - their world becomes more confusing than usual.

There is a difference between grief and mourning. While the goal of grieving is to have feelings expressed, the goal of mourning work is to take the person beyond the grief reactions to an adapted life that includes a change in one's relationship to the deceased, a development of a new sense of self and a discovery of new emotional investments in other persons or projects. The counsellor/therapist provides the presence, predictability and perseverance for the process to occur. Adolescents, being very vulnerable, are disenfranchised when not given the opportunity to grieve and mourn. If this need is not acknowledged, the work becomes delayed and this "leaving on hold" can result in complicated emotional disorders of anxiety and depression. More encouragement needs to be given to male children and adolescents to express their feelings because the social taboo "boys don't cry" deprives them from entering into the grief-mourning work which eventually give them more freedom to be themselves. As was already noted, adolescents who control feelings associated with loss or refuse to talk about the same may experience persistent anxiety that can express itself in anti-social and self-destructive behaviours.

In counselling, we lean toward the verbal dialogue as the means of helping the client. Other means of helping adolescents who find it difficult to verbalize their feelings are journal writing and art expression. Many at this age keep daily journals so making use of something familiar seems appropriate. Free use of art media provides a non-threatening medium for self-expression and most young children and adolescents engage in this activity quite readily. As caregivers, we enhance these processes for our bereaved youth by being honest and transparent about our own feelings associated with loss, by allowing them to own their perceptions/visions of the deceased person and by giving them an abundance of understanding and hope that will bring them to a new place.

"Grief can't be hurried, but it can be shared".
Marjolein Bastin

Sr. Donna Egan, M.Ed is a guidance counsellor at Stonepark High School, Charlottetown


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