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6 Ways to Help Teen Patients Navigate Loss

Know teens or young adults who have cancer? Here are some tips for helping them deal with grief.

By Elizabeth Jane Walker

Drawing of a sad teen within a black circle

For teens and young adults with cancer, life may seem more complex than it is for younger children or adults.

As they undergo treatment, teenagers must also cope with separation from their school and friends. Unlike younger children, teens are acutely aware of the long-term implications of a cancer diagnosis. But perhaps the most difficult challenge can be the loss of friends to death.

To help patients traverse the landscape of loss, St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital oncologist Liza-Marie Johnson, MD, conducted research in which she spoke with teens and young adult patients at St. Jude.

Of the study’s participants, 37% had lost friends, with 66% of those deaths related to cancer. Many of the patients admitted they rarely, if ever, discussed those losses. A full report on Johnson’s research findings recently appeared in the journal PLOS One.

The following insights may help you support a teen patient who is experiencing loss:


Recognize the depth of the bond: Teens with cancer share a unique connection. Who better understands the reality of hair loss, nausea or other issues than someone who is also going through those events? Teens often bond quickly over their shared experience with illness and then contemplate their own mortality when a friend passes away. 



Understand the range of emotions: In addition to grief, a teen may feel shocked, depressed, lonely, angry, guilty, disbelieving, hopeless or vulnerable. The survivor may also have difficulty sleeping or harbor feelings of emptiness.



Talk it out: Silence may make a friend’s death more difficult to process and increase the survivor’s risk of depression, anxiety or the physical symptoms of stress, such as headaches or stomach pain.


Jumpstart conversations: Acknowledge a teen’s relationships with other patients and ask about those relationships as a way to begin a discussion about death.



Listen: Attend to the teen’s concerns rather than ignoring the loss. Encourage the patient to interact with peers instead of seeking solitude.



Seek professional assistance: Consider seeking support from a trusted child life specialist, hospital chaplain, social worker or member of the psychology team. 


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