How to Handle Grief at Any Age  

Dr. Kristyn Gregory

| 4 min read

Dr. Kristyn Gregory, D.O., is a medical director of ...

Grief impacts children, teenagers, young adults, middle-aged adults and older adults differently. Here are some approaches to try.
About 2.5 million people die in the United States each year, leaving behind an average of five grieving people. Any of the following highly emotional events can cause grief:
  • Death of a loved one or pet, whether sudden or expected
  • Divorce
  • Loss of a job
  • Loss of safety or perceived loss of safety following a traumatic event
Grief impacts children, teenagers, young adults, middle-aged adults and older adults differently. For individuals seeking to help friends or loved ones through the grieving process, it’s important to understand the approach you might use with an older adult may not have the same effectiveness when used with a teenager.

Helping Children Cope with Grief

The way children process grief can be positively or negatively affected by those around them. Children may have a hard time understanding and coping with the loss of a loved one.  Here are some ways parents and caregivers can help children grieve:
  • Acknowledging a child’s grief and the array of emotions associated with it
  • Asking questions and listening
  • Creating rituals and new family traditions that honor the memory of a lost loved one including sharing stories and recognizing special occasions, among others
  • Maintaining routines whenever possible
  • Sharing personal stories about grief, sadness and anger, and explaining how those situations were handled
  • Spending time doing activities they enjoy
When starting conversations with a grieving child, it’s important to discuss tragic events in a calm, concise and age-appropriate manner. For example: “I have something very sad to tell you. Grandma died today.” When the time is right for a child to talk through their feelings, try asking: “Would you like to talk about what you’re feeling today?” Or “Whenever you’re ready, we can talk about what might help you get through this time.” 

Helping Teenagers Cope with Grief

Teens may experience significant changes in their sleep patterns, isolate themselves more, frequently appear irritable or frustrated, withdraw from usual activities and/or spend more time on technology.  Parents or caregivers should talk to them about their grief to promote healthy coping and acceptance. For some teenagers, it’s helpful to share their grief with adults outside the family, like teachers or a school counselor.

Helping Young and Middle-Aged Adults Cope with Grief

Don’t be afraid to be the first person to reach out to someone who is grieving. Many people are hesitant to reach out to those who are grieving until that person asks for support, but the griever may be too overwhelmed to go that route.  It’s also important not to minimize the loss. Avoid using phrases like “It was his/her time,” or “Time heals all wounds.” These gestures can come off the wrong way. Spend less time trying to say the right things and more time listening to an adult who is grieving.

Helping Older Adults Cope with Grief

Older adults experience grief at a higher rate than younger adults or children because natural loss occurs more frequently as a person ages. Spousal deaths are common among aging adults; as well as the death of their peers, neighbors, friends, siblings and cousins. Sometimes older adults need more time to process and recognize their feelings. Give them extra time to grieve, and when they’re ready, spend time with them. Sharing fond memories of the person they lost can help as well. Don’t be afraid to engage in positive conversations.

Grieving Resources

Organizations are available to help individuals through their grieving process and to connect them to a support network: 
  • The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) provides tips, toll-free helplines, and treatment locaters for those coping with grief after a disaster or traumatic event.
  • Willow House is a nonprofit, social service organization whose sole mission is to support children, families, schools, and communities who are coping with grief and the death of a loved one.
  • Suicide Awareness Voices of Education (SAVE) specializes in helping people grieving suicide loss by providing resources, support groups, stories of hope and more.
  • The Compassionate Friends provides support to bereaves families after the death of a child through its network of over 500 chapters.
  • The Dougy Center is a nonprofit that provides support in a safe place where children, teens, young adults, and families who are grieving can share their experiences before and after a death. The organization provides resources for all age groups.
  • The American Counseling Association website offers counseling articles, research-based summaries of best practices and online courses. It is free to create an account.
When an individual’s grief over a loss – or multiple losses over time – begins to affect their everyday behavior over a sustained period, it may be time to connect them to professional help. Primary care providers can be a good starting point for an individual to relay their concerns and behavioral patterns to see if additional referrals to a mental health professional would be beneficial. Kristyn Gregory, D.O., is a medical director of behavioral health at Blue Cross Blue Shield of Michigan. For more health tips and information, visit Photo credit: Getty Images More from MIBluesPerspectives:
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