The idea of explaining and discussing death with youth is one that is often met with resistance. Many people find this discussion to be uncomfortable, frightening and/or intimidating…often asking, “Well, what do I know about death anyway? How can I help?” Irvin Yalom M.D. said that talking about death is like staring at the sun. It can be done for a short moment, but beyond that it is extremely challenging to face. Right now we are in a unique position where the entire world is bound by a shared trauma and adults are finding that youth have naturally had more questions about death.
Before starting the discussion consider taking the time to do a quick body/mind scan to figure out if you are in a place where you can have this conversation with youth. If you’re not able to answer them from a place of safety, know that this is completely okay. It’s just important that you’re able to connect them with someone who can in the event that you’re not able to provide this support.
When having the discussion keep things concrete/factual, avoid using humor and treat youth like the young adults that they are. Humor can often be misunderstood in times of crisis and jokes can sometimes come from a place of anxiety on the part of the helper. If you’re considering telling a joke ask yourself, “Am I telling this to make me feel better?” It’s better to err on the side of not telling a joke than telling one and not having it land.
Treating youth as young adults is impactful and important because it identifies you as being a trusted adult in the youth’s life; someone that the youth can come to about any topic or problems that they may have in the future. Providing concrete and factual information is crucial because this is what youth are asking for in a time of crisis; they’re trying to make sense of a concept (death) that many adults do not fully understand. Hearing facts explained in simple terms in and of itself can be stabilizing in a time of crisis.
Further, in discussing death with youth it’s important to model healthy coping. It’s completely appropriate to discuss emotional, physical or thought reactions that youth may experience and provide healthy self-care alternatives that support healing. If your conversation starts off strong and then it seems that the youth becomes more guarded or has a hard time with the discussion, consider bringing in a multi-sensory activity to help with grounding (bringing the youth back to the moment). This can help to re-engage the youth in conversation and establish safety for themselves.
Some simple ways of doing this include coloring mandalas, doing a progressive muscle relaxation or guided meditation, reading a short-story, taking a walk or blowing bubbles. The reason that these activities are supportive is that trauma stores in the body. Tying in physical activity while exploring and discussing death is often exactly what youth need.
If you had a conversation with youth about death and they seem unable to self-regulate, remain stuck on the topic of death or you notice a change in their regular emotional, physical or mental functioning it may be beneficial to seek professional help. Consider alerting the school of the changes that you noticed as well as any other major supporters in the youth’s life. Empower youth to make decisions for themselves during these times and for them to let in their trusted adults know on their own. When we create the space for choice, we allow youth to establish control during a time where things seem so chaotic and out-of-control. The more support and choice that we are able to provide youth during this time, the better!
If you need further information or support in talking to youth about death, I’m happy to answer any questions that you may have!
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I am a counselor based in New Jersey that specializes in treating youth (14+) and adults following a trauma to learn how to begin the healing process and effectively cope by working toward their personal wellness goals. I also specialize in counseling those living with sexual issues and those in the LGBT* community. If you would like a partner in your recovery journey, book a complimentary 15-minute consultation or appointment through the client portal or contact me at [email protected] or (908) 248-2762.