Supporting teenage and young adult siblings with grief
Sibling relationships are unique. They share a private language and are tied together by common experiences throughout their lives. The loss that siblings feel can be profound and in the midst of their young lives, coping with their grief can be incredibly hard.
How teenagers and young adults grieve
The overwhelming emotions of grief can feel even more intense for young people. They won’t have developed the tools that adults use to express their grief or cope with it. This can lead to anger and some bereaved young people even end up in physical fights. Some seek security and will become more childlike for comfort. Others will try to grow up quickly and assume the role of an adult.
It’s common for grief to manifest in physical symptoms like tiredness, aches and pains, anxiety, loss of appetite or comfort eating, difficulty concentrating or finding it hard to sleep. Exercise and relaxation can help with this, so encourage your child to get into a sport or exercise like yoga or swimming, when they feel up to it. Maybe it’s an activity you could do together.
Lots of bereaved young people will continue leading a hectic social life or might socialise even more. This behaviour can feel inconsistent with losing their brother or sister but for them, spending time being ‘normal’ with friends can be a good escape and help them cope.
It’s not uncommon for teenagers to ‘go off the rails’ after a loss. They might try to claw back a sense of control by self-harming, driving recklessly, or turning to alcohol or drugs to block out their pain. It can be tricky to know if this risk-taking behaviour is due to their loss or is part of growing up, and it could well be both. Try to keep an open channel of communication with your child and maintain the boundaries you’ve always set – this gives them a sense of safety and continuity of normal life which is important right now.
If you start to grow seriously concerned for their welfare, try speaking to one of these organisations for advice.
What you can do
It’s important that young people are given opportunities to open up about how they feel. This isn’t always easy. They, like children, might not yet be able to express how they feel with words. They might not really understand what they feel. The best thing you can do is make yourself available – let them know you’re there for them and be patient. Listen to them and don’t assume you know what they’re going through. You could also check in with other trusted adults in their lives.
It’s also good to grieve and show emotion in front of your child. This makes the situation feel more normal and sets a positive example for them to express themselves. Just be cautious that the relationship balance doesn’t shift. If your child starts to take on the responsibility of supporting you and you feel you aren’t coping, you should really take time to help yourself too.
A key concern for teens is fitting in with peers and not being seen to be different. It’s likely that they may be the only one in their peer group who has lost someone significant – and no teenager wants to be “the only one”. That’s why meeting or interacting with other people of their age who’ve been through something similar can be a great environment for them to express themselves and not feel like they’re the only one.
Remember that they might be feeling very complex emotions like jealousy or guilt. They might feel that they can never measure up to their sibling or be regretful of any arguments they had with them. ‘Survivor guilt’ means they could be feeling guilty for living. Be open and accepting of how they feel. If you’re worried that they are growing increasingly depressed or withdrawn over a long period of time then it might be time to seek some support.
Resources for your child
- Young Lives vs Cancer: A young person’s guide to dealing with the loss of a brother or sister
- Marie Curie: Teen books about death and grief
- The Compassionate Friends: A sibling’s grief – for young adults
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