Learn about loss and grief and how to help children and youth cope.
Understanding loss and grief
Loss is a part of life. It comes in many forms and everyone reacts differently. Living with loss can be hard, especially in the beginning. Some types of loss include:
- death of a loved one
- death of a pet
- loss of family life as you’ve known it; for example, a separation or divorce of parents
- loss of an intimate relationship, such as a break-up with a partner
- loss of relationships with friends or family, perhaps because they move away
- loss of health and the ability to do things as usual.
Any meaningful loss requires us to cope and imagine a new, changed future. Even when the change is positive, like moving away to start college, it can be hard at first to leave the familiar behind and embrace a new start.
Grief is both a feeling and a process that people typically go through after a death or other significant loss. Grieving is a natural, healthy response to loss and may include:
- strong feelings such as shock, anger, resentment, sadness, guilt, relief, despair
- thinking a lot about the person who is no longer in your life, reflecting on your relationship to them and worrying what life will be like without them
- physical responses like an upset stomach, muscle tension, crying, changes to sleeping or eating patterns, exhaustion, or difficulty concentrating
- a search for meaning which could include turning to religion for strength, questioning traditional beliefs, or looking for new ways of understanding life and death.
Everybody everywhere must face loss and grief, though approaches to death and grieving vary with culture and religion and the individual experience of grief will vary in each circumstance.
Grief is usually strongest in the beginning. But sometimes, the shock of loss is so great that it takes time for the reality to sink in, delaying the grieving experience. In any case, the grieving process takes time. This period of grieving allows us to mourn our loss while we learn to live life without our loved one. It can be a difficult and sometimes lonely experience. Others, even friends, are not always sure how to help or offer comfort.
Formal grief rituals, such as funerals, visitations and memorial services, allow those in mourning to come together to share their memories and tears, and find mutual support. These rituals can provide an important opportunity to focus on the recent life lost while reminding us that we’re not alone, others are still with us, and life goes on.
Still, while such rituals can help open the door to expressions of grief, the grieving process may just be starting. It often continues for some time yet, even after daily routines resume. Feeling better is usually a gradual process over days, weeks, or months.
Losing someone close to suicide
Learning that a friend or loved one has committed suicide is often a very shocking experience. It adds another layer of pain and confusion to the experience of loss and can complicate the grieving process. In fact, the shock can be so great, and acceptance so difficult, that denial of suicide is not uncommon.
Suicide of a friend or loved one can raise feelings of guilt, anger, blame and shame for the survivors. For example:
- A person may feel guilty, thinking that some signal was missed, or more could have been done. But it is pointless for the survivors to blame themselves or others. The reasons for suicide are complex and there may have been no clues at all.
- Anger is also a common response. It’s not unusual to see family and friends as the cause of the suicide. Or young people might feel anger towards themselves, or even at the person who died. There can be a strong urge to blame somebody, to hold somebody accountable.
- Feelings of shame are also possible because of the stigma attached to suicide. So it may be difficult for young people to talk about their feelings with others. And also, others may shy away from the topic and be unsure what to say.
It is normal to experience a jumble of mixed feelings when someone close takes their own life. But friends and family will want to help. It’s important for survivors to let others know what they need.
Managing feelings of loss and grief
There are no right or wrong ways to grieve, but some ways may be more helpful than others. For example, turning to drugs or alcohol might mask the pain for a little while, but they delay the healing process and can do direct harm. Likewise, it’s one thing to feel angry, but another to act out against others – or against oneself. There are positive ways to express pain and anger that can lead to feeling better.
Here are some constructive ideas to offer any young person coming to terms with a significant loss:
- Own your feelings. It’s ok to feel whatever you’re feeling, to be confused or angry or sad. It’s ok to laugh and to cry. Sometimes you might even feel relief that some difficult or painful part of life has ended. Accept your feelings. They may change along the way. With time, the difficult feelings will ease.
- Express your feelings. There may be both positive and negative feelings and memories. Find ways to express them. Try to pull them apart and understand them. Journaling, creative writing, drawing or singing may help you to get your feelings out.
- Share your feelings. Don’t go through this alone. Talk to someone you trust. Let them know how you’re feeling. Find help too by connecting with others who’ve experienced the loss. Sharing your grief with others at ceremonies like funerals is one way to help you make sense of your loss and move forward.
- Find humour in life. Enjoy a laugh as you normally would. Finding humour in life and being able to laugh can help get you through difficult times. Laughter can break the pain and help with healing. It is good for body and mind.
- Find meaning. For example, what can you learn from this experience? Can you find some good in this bad situation? What did the deceased mean to you? Has this experience left you with new insights or perceptions about yourself or about life? Have you learned something new about others?
- Take care of yourself. Coming to terms with loss is stressful. Sleeping and eating right can help you feel better. Encourage a regular sleep routine. Yoga or deep breathing can help you relax. Making healthy food choices and eating at regular times will help too. And don’t forget to be kind to yourself, and do things you enjoy doing.
- Move forward. Bit by bit you’ll be able to feel more like yourself, living in the present, planning for the future, and focusing less on your loss. Getting to the other side of grief does not mean you’ve forgotten your loved one. But you will be able to remember them in ways that allow you to move on with your life.
When to seek help
Sometimes grief is so intense and overwhelming, or lasts so long, that extra help may be needed to move through it. Signs that it is time to seek some help include:
- not feeling better after several months of grieving
- inability to perform daily activities
- difficulty with, or lack of interest in, school work
- feeling depressed
- difficulty concentrating
- changes to sleeping or eating patterns
- lack of interest in regular social activities
- deteriorating relationships with family or friends
- substance use, self-harming behaviours or other risk-taking
- acting “strong” on the outside, while denying pain inside
- thoughts about suicide.
There is help available. There are therapists who specialize in grief counselling. There are also peer support groups. Being able to talk with others who share similar experiences can be a big boost to the healing process.
Find services close to home by searching the Ontario Health Care Options directory.
Kids Help Phone
Free, anonymous and confidential professional phone counselling and online counselling, available 24/7 for kids and youth 20 years of age and younger.
More information about loss and grief
Children’s Hospital of Eastern Ontario (CHEO)
An extensive list of books and websites for young people and parents.
Kids Help Phone
Youth friendly information, links and tips on what to do to help yourself or a friend.
How parents and other caring adults can help teens adjust to the death of a loved one.
Teen Mental Health
Downloadable booklet: Have you lost someone to suicide? Created to support families and friends following a youth suicide. (Resources are geared to Halifax region but new versions may become available for other communities in Canada.)