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Helping your teenager cope with death


While at home or at St. Jude, your teenager may experience the death of someone close to him. This person could be a friend or a family member. The death could be the result of a serious illness or even an accident. No matter what the cause, you may want support in helping your teen through this loss.

Many different staff members can help your teen deal with the death of a friend or family member. A certified child life specialist is one of the team members who will work closely with your family. This staff member can help your teen understand death and teach him ways to cope with the loss. Child life specialists are here to work with your teen and his brothers and sisters at any time during your stay. They also can support you in talking with your teen about death. When needed, Child Life can send you resource materials about grief and bereavement that fit your teen’s age. Keep in mind that teenagers are at risk for complicated mourning. If you are at home and feel that your teen needs more support, please call on local support services such as a grief counselor, chaplain, social worker, or psychologist.

The death of a loved one can be a very stressful event for you and your teen. You may think, “How can I help him understand and cope when I am having trouble myself?” The St. Jude staff offers this information to guide you in helping your teenager deal with the death of someone close to him.

Understanding death

  • Teens typically have a full understanding of death.
  • If the person who dies is close in age to your teenager, he may be faced with the reality that not everyone lives until they are very old.
  • Your teen may begin to take on more responsibilities, feeling the need to be strong and care for others.
  • He may show a wide range of feelings and emotions or no emotion at all.
  • He may act indifferent to death to protect himself.
  • Many teenagers begin to question their religion or spiritual beliefs.

Common reactions

Every teen responds to death in his own way. These are some of the most common reactions for teenagers:

  • Anger
  • Withdrawal
  • Denial
  • Aggression
  • Regression (acting younger than his age)
  • Drop in grades 
  • Risk taking
  • Assuming more responsibilities and adult roles
  • Changes in sleep patterns
  • Critical toward decisions made by friends
  • Feeling different than peers and family of the person who has died
  • Increase in conflict with friends and family

Some of these reactions may lead you to believe that your teenager is suffering from depression. Depression occurs when many symptoms, such as those listed above, last for several weeks and cause a big change in routine. If you believe that your teen is suffering from depression, please arrange for him to speak with a psychologist or counselor.

Ways to help

  • Be there for your teen.
  • Encourage your teen to seek support from others (such as a counselor or pastor, etc.) However, be careful not to push too hard.
  • Relieve your teen of the burden of adult responsibilities
  • Model healthy grieving (coping).
  • Offer your teenager books and journals that address teen grief. You can find these at your local library or bookstore. Some titles that other teens have found helpful are:
    • "Facing Change: Falling Apart and Coming Together Again in the Teen Years" by Bonna O’Toole
    • "My Grieving Journey Book" by Donna and Eve Shavatt
    • "Fire in My Heart, Ice in My Veins" by Enid Samuel-Taisman
  • You may find these books helpful when preparing your teenager for a death:
    • "Preparing the Children: Information and Ideas for Families Facing Terminal Illness" by Kathy Nussbaum
    • "Living the Dying Process: A Guide for Caregivers" by Jody Gyulay 


If you have concerns about how your teen is adjusting to the death of someone close to him, please contact the Child Life department at (901) 595-3020. If you are inside the hospital, dial 3020. If you are outside the Memphis area, call toll-free 1-866-2STJUDE (1-866-278-5833), extension 3020.

This document is not intended to take the place of the care and attention of your personal physician or other professional medical services. Our aim is to promote active participation in your care and treatment by providing information and education. Questions about individual health concerns or specific treatment options should be discussed with your physician.

St. Jude complies with health care-related federal civil rights laws and does not discriminate on the basis of race, color, national origin, age, disability, or sex.

ATTENTION: If you speak another language, assistance services, free of charge, are available to you. Call 1-866-278-5833 (TTY: 1-901-595-1040).

ATENCIÓN: si habla español, tiene a su disposición servicios gratuitos de asistencia lingüística. Llame al 1-866-278-5833 (TTY: 1-901-595-1040).

تنبيه: إذا كنت تتحدث باللغة العربية فيمكنك الاستعانة بخدمات المساعدة اللغوية المتوفرة لك مجانا. .يرجى الاتصال بالرقم. 5833-278-866-1  (الهاتف النصي: 1040-595-901-1).