Teen Grief and Loss: Feeling Bereavement in the Body

Three main bodily reactions can take place after a traumatic event such as losing a loved one to death. These are the arousal of physical responses such as restlessness, a disturbance in concentration, problems with sleep, and flashbacks that might contribute to increased bodily and psychological tension. Additionally, a teen might actively avoid the reality of death as well as ignore any memories with the deceased.

These reactions have been found to interfere with a teen’s development and inhibit a healthy grieving process. One study in Norway, published in the Journal of Clinical Nursing, worked with grieving teens using a method called the Body Awareness Program (BAP). The teens, ages 13-18, were interviewed on the experiences of their body during their grieving process. They were also given certain coping mechanisms to use.

Beneath the façade of coping, adolescents in the study were actually found to be internalizing their psychological struggles. They reported feeling pain in their body, and feeling stiff, anxious, and restless. However, those who used the BAP gained awareness of their bodies and the connection between body-behavior-feelings. The results of the study concluded that BAP is a useful technique to use with teens that are grieving.

The process of grieving is not linear. It’s a process that goes through various cycles. Yet, the understanding of grief is relatively new in psychology.  Additionally, the treatment process of grief is a fairly recent addition to the mental health field. Previously, grief was incorporated into the treatment of other mental illnesses. However, in the 1970’s, grief counseling began to emerge. Certainly, the book by Elizabeth Kubler Ross, titled Death and Dying in 1969, could have implemented this change. She outlined five distinct stages to the grieving process based on her long-time work with her own clients. These stages form the acronym DABDA for easy recollection in their order. They are denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance.

Another popular theory in the treatment of teen grief is the four steps developed by psychologist J.W. Worden. He theorized that the four tasks to grieving are accepting the reality of the loss, working through the pain of grief, adjusting to life without the deceased (or loss), and maintaining a connection to the deceased (or loss) while moving on with life. Whether working with the stages developed by Kubler Ross or Worden, knowing them can serve as a map of the challenging road that grieving presents.

The recent study in Norway, published in 2012, indicates that the treatment of teen grief continues to be developed. Certainly, somatic healing has gained more and more popularity in the last 10 years among clinicians, and the BAP method is none other than a form of somatic therapy.  Also known as somatic experiencing, somatic therapy is aimed at relieving and resolving the symptoms of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (death of a loved one is considered to be a traumatic event) and other mental and physical trauma-related health problems by focusing on the client’s perceived body sensations. Somatic experiencing is based on the work of Peter Levine and his 1997 book titled Waking the Tiger. In it, he discusses the details of the biological healing process, which he learned by studying animals in the wild.

Including somatic healing in teen grief and loss treatment is important, as the study in Norway indicates. This is especially true for teens that experience severe effects from the loss of a loved one. If grieving and bereavement go untreated, it can lead to significant impairment in a teen’s life. For this reason, finding a psychologist or therapist to work your teen is essential for recovery.


Bugge, K., Haugstvedt, K., Røkholt, E., Darbyshire, P., & Helseth, S. (2012). Adolescent bereavement: embodied responses, coping and perceptions of a body awareness support programme. Journal Of Clinical Nursing, Aug2012, Vol. 21 Issue 15/16, p2160-2169.