Supporting our youth through times of grief and loss

When we think about grief and loss, our brain tends to assume the worst, which commonly is associated with the passing of a loved one. However, feelings of loss can be closely tied to the loss of various other entities, rituals and opportunities. Although it’s easy to distinguish the loss of a pet compared to the inability to train with your local football team, the byproducts of this loss may carry the same weight. This is especially important in our current society where our youth have needed to become increasingly more resilient and open-minded – sometimes needing to sacrifice their needs due to ever-changing circumstances.

Dealing with grief and loss is not always a linear process and may involve a wide variety of emotions and feelings that fluctuate throughout the stages of recovery. We have to first help young people understand what grief and loss entails. Grief is often used as an overarching term to identify all emotions caused by any form of loss, whereas loss can be explained by the passing of someone special (physical), not being able to enjoy a weekly hobby (values), losing the inability to share your opinion or losing the connection to another person (social). 

To assist and help manage feelings of grief and loss, the five stages of grief can provide a young person with a process and various themes they may experience on their road to recovery:

  • Denial – a young person may feel helpless, experience dreams about their loss and/or formulate alternate reasons that caused the loss;
  • Anger – a young person may feel alone and responsible for their loss, often causing negative emotions;
  • Bargaining – a young person may begin to internally discuss the ‘what ifs’ and what they could have done differently to prevent their loss;
  • Depression – a young person may experience a sense of helplessness, hopelessness and desertedness often causing a state of sadness;
  • Acceptance – a young person may accept a reality that involves loss and can commit to this reality through coping mechanisms and support.

It is important to note that episodes of depression don’t necessarily indicate mental illness. However, unresolved grief can have long-lasting negative effects on your overall wellbeing. Once you have accepted and committed to a future without a particular being or ritual, realising the triggers or precipitating factors that may cause negative feelings is strongly encouraged to develop a resilient lifestyle. 

The following analogy may help explain the process of grief and loss:

Ethan, an eighteen-year-old avid footballer, struggled to understand the cancellation of all training sessions and the suspension of his state league football season due to the COVID-19 restrictions. After a strong pre-season and high ambitions for the upcoming season, Ethan was dealt a massive blow to his motivation and his overall mood. He began to question the importance of social distancing and would constantly ring his club for more answers, causing him to gradually become frustrated at the lack of clarity and feel alone due to the lack of training. 

Ethan began to run each evening and would attempt body-weight sessions in his garage, but nothing helped achieve that emotional and physical ‘high’ that would come with club training sessions. He developed a sense of hopelessness and questioned whether all this training was worth it, seeing as the season was over. His family started to notice his constant mood swings, outbursts and his tendency to spend long periods of time in his room.

After some conversations between Ethan and his family about his mental health, he decided to begin online counselling and was guided through Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) by a registered counsellor. This process enabled Ethan to express his emotions, accept his loss and formulate a new training plan that encouraged a growth mindset.

Ethan’s process of grief and loss, although specific to sport, can be interpreted and adapted to many other forms of grief. Through ACT, Ethan was able to understand his emotions which would aid the construction of strategies that would assist him in the short and long term future. 

I strongly encourage all young people to:

  • Identify their support figures or mentors;
  • Maintain physical activity and exercise self-care;
  • Take your time and treat yourself with compassion;
  • Realise what your triggers are and address them;
  • Make lists and minimise your schedule (or maximise if you would like to stay busy) to cope with everyday demands;
  • Maintain a healthy and consistent sleep routine.

Young people who are currently experiencing or have experienced a sense of grief and loss shouldn’t feel mentally ‘ill or broken’; nor should they feel like they need to suppress their emotions because they think that it may be an inconvenience to others.

Be kind to yourself and be patient with your own unique process. There will always be sources of support ready for you to address and express your mental health concerns. 

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