There are estimated to be more than 1 million children and young people who have been bereaved because of Covid-19.
Grief can be complicated at the best of times. When someone close to us dies, we often feel lost, overwhelmed, hopeless. But in the time of a pandemic, grief can get even more complicated - especially for adolescents.
What is complicated grief?
‘Complicated grief’ is a term used by researchers and clinicians to describe grief that continues in a persistent, intense form long after the person has died. It can manifest in obsessive thoughts about the person who has died, intense anxiety, total lack of motivation, or a struggle to deal with day-to-day tasks. Complicated grief can develop into mental health problems, addictions and offending behaviour if it isn’t treated with the right treatment and support.
Sadly, we know how damaging unresolved complicated grief can be for adolescents. 25% of under 20s who commit suicide have experienced childhood bereavement, as have 40% of youth offenders (compared to 4% of the general population).
Can anyone develop complicated grief?
Yes - but there are several factors that increase the risk of experiencing complicated grief. These include social isolation, increased anxiety, and experiencing a loss that is sudden and inexplicable. Before the pandemic, young people in many parts of the world were already feeling increasingly anxious, and recent research has shown that young people in some countries are feeling lonelier even than older people.
Sadly, all of the risk factors for complicated grief have been heightened during this pandemic. Young people are saying goodbye to loved ones via an iPad, funerals are either not happening or happening in a very limited fashion, and traditional community support is just not accessible. This means that many young people around the world are going to experience complicated grief, unless they get the right support.
What’s more, those from disadvantaged communities will be hit the hardest: they are more likely to lose a loved one to Covid-19, less likely to access support, and at greater risk of social isolation.
Help - and hope - is at hand
While all of this feels very worrying, there are some things that we can all do to help young people who have lost someone they love. Whether you are a parent, carer, teacher, youth worker, psychotherapist, or just someone who wants to support a grieving young person, here are some tips for how to guide them through their grief. These tips came out of a conversation between Louis (Child Psychotherapist) and Henry (bereaved 19-year-old and Apart of Me Guide).
1. Give them time
Everyone’s grief process is different, and it is common for grief reactions to be delayed in times or places where it doesn’t feel safe for the grief to come through. The term for this is ‘delayed grief’. Given the times we are in, it may be that a young person’s grief doesn’t feel safe to come out, and their emotions may be repressed. Repression isn’t always a bad thing. Our minds have defences against risks just like our skin defends us from toxins. Grieving is a risk if a young person doesn’t trust that their environment is able to hold that grief. So don’t force the issue - give them time to grieve at their own pace.
2. Give them space
In the current situation, with families locked in with each other for extended periods of time, it is likely that a young person will need more space from their parents/family than usual. It’s important to honour this while also making sure they don’t get too lost in their own world or withdraw completely.
3. Be a safe space
Sometimes grief just needs a safe space. Adolescents don’t always find it easy to talk to each other about grief - neither do grown-ups for that matter. So grief can be a very isolating experience for a young person. While we don’t want to rush their grief, it’s important to provide a safe space for them to feel and express all of the emotions they are experiencing. Let them know that you are there for whenever they feel ready to talk, or just cry, and that they can share anything with you.
4. Beyond words
Communication happens on many levels, not only with words. Just because a young person isn’t talking openly about their grief, it doesn’t mean that they aren’t communicating this grief. Sometimes, just sitting together in the same room can feel supportive, even if no words are shared. Gestures like a cup of tea, a hug or simply holding their hand can mean so much more than words.
5. Let social media help
Social media comes in for a lot of criticism, as does gaming. But we know that young people often only feel safe expressing their feelings in online spaces. Remembering loved ones online, for example with Facebook memorials, can be a really supportive way for them to process feelings around a loss and feel less alone. However, whether social media is good or bad for young people’s mental health depends a lot on how they use it. It’s important to be aware that in some online spaces, trolls can pick on vulnerable posts and leave young people feeling even more wounded. It’s also possible that young people use social media and digital technology to avoid difficult feelings. Being able to sit with our feelings, even just for short bursts, is vital to grief, so if a young person is using social media or gaming to avoid feelings completely then it’s important you have a gentle discussion with them, and share with them some resources on how to sit with difficult feelings (hint: we share loads of these tips in the Apart of Me world).
6. Don’t be afraid to talk about difficult stuff
We are all afraid to talk about death. It is arguably the hardest topic to address. We have so much fear about death and the feelings that might come up if we do talk about it. But sometimes all we need is someone to just name how crap it feels. Here at Apart of Me, we like to say ‘grief sucks’, because losing someone close to you really does suck.
7. It’s OK to not be OK
This is really key. The world is going through a shit time. And on top of that you have lost someone you care about. So being happy and productive is unlikely to be the natural response. We should support young people to allow themselves to feel sad and hopeless, because it’s a normal part of the grieving process. It is only when we truly feel OK with having these ‘negative’ feelings that we can also enjoy the more ‘positive’ feelings, such as joy and love, in all their glory. This being said, creating a few small moments of light throughout the day can be key for easing the path back to a more positive view on life. Yes, there is grief, sadness and anger going on inside, but learning through things as simple as favourite foods, books or movies that there are still moments to be cherished every day can make a real difference.
Finally, please do recommend Apart of Me, the therapeutic game we designed, to any young people you know who have been bereaved. It has won multiple awards and already helped thousands of young people around the world to find a way through their grief.