When someone dies it is a terrible loss and shock to their families, friends, and community. Families and communities who experience such losses often experience old feelings of hurt and pain as well as deep empathy for those who are most impacted by the deaths. Often parents are uncertain how to help their teens and children reach out to those who are directly affected, or how to help their teens and children manage their own reactions.
How to help a friend or loved one who has experienced a loss
In order for you and your family to support a friend or loved one during this difficult time, it is important to know that people respond very differently to traumatic events and losses. Some may be very upset, cry, yell, or shake. Others may seem calm and composed or even numb, cold and detached. Some may want to talk about the event while others may wish to remain quiet. Some may want physical contact while others may not want to be touched. Typical reactions to sudden death include any number of emotions including feelings of fear, anger, guilt, sadness, and confusion.
Some individuals who have endured traumatic situations, despite how they are feeling, may believe it is necessary to assure others that they are fine. They may not want to “bother” others with their problems or may want to get “back to normal.” It is common for people to experience mood swings during this time, and survivors may misdirect anger towards others or towards themselves. Some survivors may feel overly dependent upon or become overprotective of others. Each individual will experience unique reactions and may alternate among these reactions.
Communicate: Send a message of concern by phone, mail, or email. Do something that does not necessarily require a response from the person, as he or she may already feel overwhelmed by the immediacy of the event and the tasks they are confronting in the initial days and weeks following a loss or traumatic event. It may be tempting to compare their situation to one you have experienced but it is better to simply listen to what the person feels and wants as people may have different reactions from you and may even feel differently from day to day.
Support: Often, friends and family feel a need to “problem solve” or offer advice. This is often not necessary. For those who are close to a grieving person, physical presence and support are usually more valuable. Suggestions as to what a grieving person should have done or should do now are usually not helpful.
Education: Educate yourself about trauma and the healing process. Learn about common reactions to traumatic experiences and about resources by attending seminars, searching the internet, reading books, or talking to a counselor.
Listen: Listen and allow the survivor to talk about the traumatic experience at his or her own pace. Friends can let the survivor know that they are there to listen and give support when the survivor is ready.
Do not focus solely on the trauma: Take a break from talking about it. Follow the survivor’s lead on when to talk about it and when to take a break. Allow time for mutual relaxation and engaging in ordinary tasks and activities.
Return Control: By respecting the survivor’s wishes and allowing them to make decisions, friends can help return control to them.
How to help your child or teenager affected by the loss of a friend or peer
Reactions to traumatic events vary depending on your child’s individual temperament, personality, and coping styles. Past stressful life events, loss, or exposure to trauma also play a significant role in his or her reaction to traumatic events. Emotions differ across individuals and may include sadness, anger, anxiety, worry, shock, and grief. Reactions may range from preoccupation on all details surrounding the event to avoidance of discussions and information gathering. Adults and adolescents who have previously experienced violent or traumatic events are at increased risk for developing these symptoms and reactions. Nevertheless, adults and teens can have strong reactions even if they have never experienced a trauma in the past or are not directly involved in the traumatic event.
Be aware of your own feelings and thoughts. Anxiety, worry, sadness, and anger are all expected reactions to unexpected events and loss. It is important that you understand your own feelings and thoughts. Children and even teenagers will look to you for support and ways in which to cope. If you are overwhelmed, your children may react with fear and anxiety. Approaching the situation in a calm manner will help your child or teen feel safer and supported.
Do not make assumptions. Each individual has different reactions and responses to a traumatic event. It is important that you do not make assumptions about your children’s thoughts and feelings. It is recommended that you speak to your adolescent or child directly and ask them about their thoughts and feelings.
Engage in open communication. It is important that you address your adolescent’s or child’s concerns and invite questions. Listen to what your children have to say and invite questions. If you have difficulty answering questions, it is okay to say that you do not know the answer. Keep in mind that conversations about the event and related feelings may be ongoing among your teen or child’s peer group. It is also important for you to anticipate that your adolescent or child may not want to talk about the event with you. The key is for you to create an environment in which your children feel supported and listened to, and in which you communicate to your children that you are available to talk at any time.
Expect emotions. Expect that your children will be experiencing a number of emotions and that feelings will fluctuate from day to day. Even if your child or teen is doing well, it is possible that feelings and behaviors related to the event may become apparent in the weeks to follow. Alternatively, your children may not show any signs of distress or worry related to the events. Pay attention to your children’s emotions and behaviors, and talk with them about any concerns you have about their reactions.
Validate emotions. A great variety of feeling is expected as a result of a sudden loss. Show your children that you understand how they are feeling and that they are being heard. For example, you can say “I know how confused you are about all this. I feel the same way” or “I can see that you are very sad.”
Be honest and open. Your child or adolescent may be more likely to open up about their feelings when you take the lead and discuss your own thoughts and feelings about the event. Sharing your own feelings may help to normalize the experiences and reactions of your children.
Keep it in perspective. When a traumatic event occurs, it is normal for families to become concerned about their sense of safety and well-being. It is important that you keep events such as a plane crash in perspective and recognize that such events are rare. You are encouraged to reassure your children and communicate that these events are not part of everyday life.
Use and model coping skills. Encourage your children to use relaxation techniques that have worked for them in the past. This is also important for you as parents to model for your children. Relaxation techniques include taking slow, deep breaths from the diaphragm and visualizing a safe and calm place such as a sandy beach or pleasurable memory. Encourage your children to engage in distracting activities, such as sports or hobbies, when they are feeling overwhelmed or anxious.
Encourage your children to give back. Children can feel a sense of empowerment, control, and accomplishment by participating actively in their community. Encourage your children to volunteer and help others, especially at times when communities are distressed.
Seek professional guidance. If you see significant changes in your children’s behaviors and emotions that persist over a few weeks or are impacting their functioning, seek professional help. Sometimes a single consultation is all that is needed to help you and your child or teen get back on track.
Seek social support. As parents, you may need some support to work through your feelings and thoughts about the event or about how the event has affected your child and family. Seek out support from your friends and families. If needed, speak with a trained professional to process your feelings of anxiety, anger or sadness.
Published: August 2009
Reviewed: December 2011