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Helping Teens Cope with Death

Helping your teenager cope with a death

The death of a loved one can be a very stressful event for you and your teen. You may think, “How can I help him understand and cope when I am having trouble myself?” This handout serves as a guide in helping your teenager deal with the death of someone close to him or her.
Many different staff members can help your teen deal with the death of a friend or family member. A certified child life specialist is one of the team members who will work closely with your family. This staff member can help your teen understand death and teach him or her ways to cope with the loss. Child life specialists are here to work with your teen and his or her brothers and sisters at any time during your stay. They also can support you in talking with your teen about death. When needed, a specialist from the Child Life Program can send you resource materials about grief and bereavement that fit your teen’s age. Keep in mind that teenagers are at risk for complicated mourning. If you are at home and feel that your teen needs more support, please call on local support services such as a grief counselor, chaplain, social worker or psychologist.

Understanding death

  • Teens typically have a full understanding of death.
  • If the person who dies is close in age to your teenager, he or she may be faced with the reality that not everyone lives until they are very old.
  • Your teen may begin to take on more responsibilities, feeling the need to be strong and care for others.
  • He or she may show a wide range of feelings and emotions or no emotion at all.
  • Your child may act indifferent to death to protect him or herself.
  • Many teenagers begin to question their religion or spiritual beliefs.

Common reactions

Every teen responds to death in his or her own way. These are some of the most common reactions for teenagers:

  • Anger
  • Denial
  • Withdrawal
  • Regression (acting younger than his or her age)
  • Aggression
  • Drop in grades
  • Risk taking
  • Changes in sleep patterns
  • Feeling different than peers
  • Increase in conflict with friends and family
  • Assuming more responsibilities and adult roles
  • Critical toward decisions made by friends and family of the person who has died

Some of these reactions may lead you to believe that your teenager is suffering from depression.
Depression occurs when many symptoms, such as those listed above, last for several weeks and cause a big change in routine. If you believe that your teen is suffering from depression, please arrange for him or her to speak with a psychologist or counselor.

Ways to help

  • Be there for your teen.
  • Encourage your teen to seek support from others (such as a counselor or pastor, etc.) However, be
    careful not to push too hard.
  • Relieve your teen of the burden of adult responsibilities
  • Model healthy grieving (coping).

Offer your teenager books and journals that address teen grief. You can find these at your local
library or bookstore.

  • Some titles that other teens have found helpful are:
  • Facing Change: Falling Apart and Coming Together Again in the Teen Years by Bonna O’Toole
  • My Grieving Journey Book by Donna and Eve Shavatt
  • Fire in My Heart, Ice in My Veins by Enid Samuel-Taisman

You may find these books helpful when preparing your teenager for a death:

  • Preparing the Children: Information and Ideas for Families Facing Terminal Illness by Kathy Nussbaum
  • Living the Dying Process: A Guide for Caregivers by Jody Gyulay


If you have concerns about how your teen is adjusting to the death of someone close to him or her,
please contact the Child Life Program at (916) 703-3024. 

Adapted with permission from St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital. Revised 7/05
UC Davis Cancer Center 12/06