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The Impacts of Stress and Grief on Teens

Grief is one of the most painful emotions humans can feel. If you are grieving a loss or supporting a grieving loved one, please know that grief is normal. In fact, it can be healthy: Grief is a perfectly natural response to losing someone we care about. It is a testament to our ability as human beings to become meaningfully attached to one another. It may help you to think of grief as a sign of love, not a sign that something is wrong.

Complicated grief, however, is different from normal grieving. If your teenager has sunk into feelings of hopelessness, he or she may be experiencing complicated grief. This type of grief is more common in people who have experienced trauma or a great deal of emotional pain. Loss can unleash past emotional states from previous losses that the person may not have processed, or that may feel overwhelming. People who suffer from mental illness are more vulnerable to complicated grief because of the cumulative effect of their painful history.

A person experiencing this type of grief may not have the vocabulary to describe what he or she is feeling. When emotional pain becomes more than we can handle, we sometimes lose the ability to explain to others what is going on inside our minds. For this reason, it is especially important to look out for warning signs that your teenager may need professional help:

- Excessive guilt. Regrets are normal and part of life. But when a person feels responsible for another’s death, they often feel hopeless and irredeemable. Christian faith teaches us to be hopeful, because no one is beyond the redeeming power of God.

- Excessive anger or sudden outbursts. These are major signs that a person is dealing with inner turmoil. Sadness is normal, but over-the-top angry outbursts are not.

- Emotional numbing. If your teenager is disappearing into social media, television, or video games, they may be running from emotions they don’t know how to process. The same is true for teenagers who try to numb the pain with drugs or alcohol.

- Relationship issues.

- Long-lasting depression. If your teenager is withdrawn and upset for a prolonged amount of time, he or she could likely benefit from help to process difficult emotions.

All of us are called to the Hero’s Journey. This means we will all face tragedy at some point in our lives, and we are all called to overcome it.

Personally, I have experienced unimaginable grief and loss within my own family. Camp SEK is named after my daughter, Sara Elizabeth Killebrew, who passed away in 2020 due to complications from COVID-19. In her honor, Camp SEK helps others dealing with loss and trauma.

Grieving is never easy, nor is it linear. I have learned more about my own brain through this process, and I have experienced the reality of a concept I studied in graduate school: Every part of the human brain is connected. The right hemisphere of the brain, the emotional and artistic part, and the left hemisphere, the logical and calculating part, are not siloed away from each other.

Grieving people can benefit from a strategy called Whole Brain Living, which blends using both hemispheres of the brain. The right hemisphere refuels while the left uses the fuel. A fueled brain is a healthy brain, but if we have an overactive sympathetic nervous system, the brain burns more energy than it has to spare. This leads to myriad mental health issues.

Whole Brain Living requires self-soothing, plus good sleep and a healthy diet. Our hemispheres are not islands; they are instruments in a symphony that shapes how we interact with the world around us.

Whole Brain Living is just one way to approach grief. Camp SEK teaches several strategies, all based on holistic wellness, for teenagers to process grief, to foster emotional peace, and to build mental strength.


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