Helping Kids Process Grief

Posted on: 12/10/09 10:12 AM | by Jonathan McKee

Tragedy is a reality. We all face it at times. The question we might have as parents and youth workers is, “How can we help our kids process this kind of grief?”

My city has been dealing with this recently as three young people were killed in a car wreck. The intriguing thing I’m noticing is the different advice we’re hearing about helping kids deal with this.

Our Sacramento Bee newspaper offered some interesting observations in their recent article about the incident, noting that teenagers don’t grieve like adults. The article contends that teenagers bury their feelings deep because of the pressure to look good and seem confident.

I’m not sure I agree with that generalization at all. I have seen plenty of evidence to the contrary, where kids will almost have complete meltdowns over even trivial matters. Youth workers like to call this “drama.” We’ve all seen it. Billy breaks up with Ali and Ali reacts no better than “Bella” in the recent movie New Moon… complete emotional breakdown.

I think some teenagers probably do have a propensity to repress feelings or “gunnysack,” but I wouldn’t try to rubberstamp that as a diagnosis for all teenagers. It would be difficult to generalize “all students” as grieving one way. Students are so diverse in how they process things.

But the same Bee article also noted something I found quite interesting- something I definitely have observed mainstream- the desire teenagers have to just be together and process grief with their friends.

“A lot of times, kids don’t necessarily want to talk, they just want to be together,” said Lissa Morgan, counselor at Rocklin. “They just want to go into the room and feel supported by one another.”

A steady rotation of students filled a conference room at Rocklin on Monday and Tuesday, where chaplains and counselors were on call. Most students sat quietly, Morgan said, or signed a poster with notes to Pak, a junior who died in the car crash.

Students at Folsom also taped a banner to an outside wall for Shaw, a senior who died in the crash. Throughout the day, students picked up Crayola markers to write notes or draw pictures. Or they gathered at the wall to share memories of Shaw.

“You didn’t have to know him for this to affect you,” said Yasi Saderi, 17, senior class president, who plans to give the completed banner to Shaw’s mother. “We wanted everyone to express what they felt.”

The wall is especially effective for teens, White said, because it gives them permission to express their feelings without being put on the spot. Reading others’ comments helps teens understand their own feelings.

I emailed this article to my buddy Lane Palmer to ask his two cents. Lane has a counseling background and was a youth pastor in Columbine during the 1999 incident. Lane, a regular contributor to our website, has written articles for us about dealing with school shooting tragedies and how to process this kind of grief as a group. Lane chimed in on this particular Sacramento Bee article and how students can process grief in a healthy way:

Every teen to some extent will go through the grieving period during adolescence, so youth workers need to be aware and ready to help.  It could be the death of a parent, friend suicide, or even a grieving of moving out of childhood.  It’s a great opportunity to help students understand and process both the joys and loss that relationships and life brings.

I agree that letting the teens just ‘hang out’ and process on a peer level is important, but equally important is encouraging them to process their feelings in some way- talking, journaling, drawing, etc.  With some of the Columbine students, I just sat and let the conversation flow.

Avoid any ‘you need to be strong’ or ‘you need to move on’ stuff.  Every teen grieves in a different way and time.

I think hanging a huge butcher paper in the youth room and make a general opportunity to write thoughts, names, struggles, etc. would be a great thing for any youth group

Great advice from Lane.

You can check out the entire Sacramento Bee article here.

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3 Replies to “Helping Kids Process Grief”

  1. Thanks for sharing this, grief is always difficult, especially for teenagers who have not had as much experience dealing with that kind of difficult experience.

  2. Hi Jonathan,

    Enjoyed reading your blog and so glad to see that someone is dealing with these issues directly as opposed to backing away from them, which is what so many of us are conditioned to do.

    I am very lucky to be working with an incredible voice for these kids and incredible resource for all dealing with loss and kids. She is Kate Atwood, founder of Kate’s Club, one of the nation’s finest kids’ grief support organizations. You can seem more at One of Kate’s primary messages is that kids should never grieve alone and that there is much we can all do to help. She believes that kids should be exposed to the joy they deserve in life.

    She shares this philosophy and a ton of practical advice for parents and caregivers in A Healing Place, a new book from Perigee Books that just came out in November. The book covers issues ranging from how to deal with memories to helping a child find his voice to how to handle holiday traditions and much more and is well worth checking out for anyone going through this or anyone who knows someone going through this!

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