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A Tale of Two Teens and Their Grief: What Every Caregiver Needs to Know

Caregivers play a huge role in the coping journey of teens grieving the loss of a sibling. Understanding why a teen might be reacting to grief in a troubling way is the first step on the road to better coping and a brighter future.
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Meet Jamel.

He's 17 years old and lives with his grandmother in the inner city of a bustling metropolis. Life isn't easy for Jamel. His walk to school is carefully plotted out to avoid local kids selling drugs. And even school isn't a safe environment. There are too many kids, too few teachers, and just not enough resources. Fighting in the halls is a common occurrence. But worse than that, six months ago, Jamel's little brother was killed in front of him during a home invasion.

Since then, he's struggled with symptoms of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. He's jumpy at loud noises. He's constantly monitoring his surroundings for danger. He's even started approaching those dealers he used to avoid, experimenting with drugs to numb out some of the intrusive memories of the murder. He doesn't know what the future has in store for him and he's scared.

Now meet Zarrah.

She's also 17 and lives in a rural suburb of that same metropolis. Four years ago, her brother Trey, a marine deployed to Iraq, was killed instantly when his Humvee hit a roadside bomb. Zarrah's entire community mourned Trey's passing and his picture appeared in the local paper announcing that a hero had died in combat. With the encouragement of her school counselor, Zarrah began to create a "hero book" filled with pictures and happy memories of Trey.

Even so, Zarrah often cries and misses her brother terribly, but as time has passed, she's learned how to integrate the loss into her daily experiences and acknowledge that while Trey's death will always be a part of her own life story, it doesn't have to be the main focus.

How could two teenagers, both the same age, both bereaved, have such a different response to the loss of a sibling? Jamel and Zarrah's cases are extreme examples, but there are many teenagers currently attempting to cope with the loss of a brother or sister who are relying on caregiver support to get them through.

In my decade of working with grieving teens, I've observed certain factors can either help or hinder the coping process. In my field of practice, these key elements are called Risk and Protective Factors.

Risk Factors are those elements that can put mourning teens at risk for coping healthfully and can result in psychological disorders like major depression or PTSD, while Protective Factors serve the reverse purpose: they help protect teens by helping them find meaning and work healthfully with symptoms of grief.

With this in mind, let's go back to Jamel's story.

Living in an area that has few or no community resources, higher crime rates, fewer opportunities for jobs or education, lack of stable housing, poverty, or feeling unsafe presents a risk factor. As we saw in Jamel's situation, an experience of urban poverty may leave teens more inclined to experience isolation as they grieve, in addition to opening them up for more traumatic experiences, which in itself is another risk factor for coping in unhealthy ways. Multiple studies on urban youth have suggested that teens in these environments, constantly exposed to trauma, become almost "pre-wired" for PTSD, and an overwhelming number of youth in juvenile settings (especially minority youth) have previously experienced trauma.

While you can't always remove a teen from his or her environment, you can search for and be part of a solution and protective factor that involves being caring and supportive.

Having caring and supportive people around, which can include extended family, can help with problem-solving during hard times. Often, teens can be supported by athletic coaches, clergy, or even just by finding one safe mentor outside of the family confide in. This can make a world of difference in breaking a cycle of grieving in a vacuum and encourage a search for connection, bolstering social support to aid in a teen's grief journey.

Witnessing the death or hearing about many of the details, especially if the death was especially violent, painful, or recent present other risk factors. In Jamel's case, watching his brother die just a few months prior had a profound effect on his mental health.

Conversely, Zarrah's story illustrates a very different experience with grieving a sibling.

Zarrah's brother Trey died a few years ago in a different country, and she was not exposed to too many details about the death, knowing he was killed instantly. Additionally, Trey's death was seen as heroic, and this had an impact on Zarrah's grieving process.

While no one can't change the details of how a loved one died, a caregiver can refrain from discussing triggering information that can intensify a teen's symptoms. Remember, even for some teens who didn't witness the death itself, even just hearing gruesome details can trigger trauma reactions.

You can also insert the following protective factor into a grieving teen's life: teaching him or her to cope with difficult situations by turning to art, breathing exercises, athletics, or talking to others. The more outlets a teen has for expressing grief instead of running from it, the more likely he or she is to learn to make meaning from it.

Caregivers play a huge role in the coping journey of teens grieving the loss of a sibling. Understanding why a teen might be reacting to grief in a troubling way is the first step on the road to better coping and a brighter future.

Erica Goldblatt Hyatt, DSW, is assistant professor and department chair of psychology at Bryn Athyn College. Over the course of her career, she has served as a hospital administrator, mental health clinician, academic advisor, family-informed trauma treatment therapist, and clinical oncology social worker to both adult and pediatric populations. Her book Grieving for the Sibling You Lost (September 2015) is available via New Harbinger Publications.