Supporting Mātātahi / Young People Through Grief

If a young person in your life has lost a loved one, you may be feeling worried about what they’re going through and unsure of how to help them. We’ll talk about the emotions young people feel when they’re grieving, the ways they show those emotions, and the things you can do to support them.

When mātātahi / young people lose someone close to them, it’s likely to be the first time they have experienced death. That also means the first time they’ve felt the overwhelming, sometimes frightening emotions that come with grief. These can include anger, denial, anxiety, guilt and loneliness. A grieving teen or young adult’s emotions can be conflicting and difficult to express. They may be suffering from physical symptoms or mood swings, and their behaviour might become withdrawn or reckless. Getting the right kinds of support at the right time is important for a young person to be able to express their grief in healthy ways and in the longer term, learn to grow and even thrive around it.

Te whare tapa whā

In the Māori holistic model of health – Te whare tapa whā – there are four dimensions to our wellbeing: Taha Tinana / physical wellbeing; Taha Hinengaro / mental wellbeing; Taha Wairua / spiritual wellbeing; and Taha Whānau / family wellbeing.

Te whare tapa whā helps us to understand the importance of taking care of all four parts of ourselves. This is especially important when we’re grieving.

The emotions that come with grief can be overwhelming. Sometimes, that means our grief manifests in physical ways. As a mātua / parent or caregiver of a young person, you might notice that they have symptoms such as:

• headaches

• difficulty breathing / feeling very ‘panicky’

• a sore puku / stomach

• changes in appetite

• sleep problems

• fatigue

• dizziness

• trouble concentrating

There are things you can do to manage the physical symptoms caused by grief. Involve the young person in a conversation about strategies that can help them to improve their taha tinana / physical wellbeing. Here are some that may help:

- Make sure they are taking care of their basic needs, such as hygiene, eating and sleeping.

Tip: If these self-care tasks are difficult, set up a checklist and get them to tick each task off each day.

- Suggest that they try a relaxation or mindfulness technique, such as deep breathing or meditation.

Tip: These are techniques that need to be learned and practised. Telling a teen they should sit still and meditate without guidance on how to do it could make them more frustrated! There are plenty of apps and online resources that you can check out together offering guidance on relaxation and mindfulness.

- Encourage them to exercise. Whether it’s playing a casual sports game with friends or going for a walk around the block, any amount of exercise will be beneficial for both their taha tinana / physical and taha hinengaro / mental health.

- Check on their sleep habits. This means avoiding things that will make it harder to sleep (e.g. using their phone late into the evening)

Tip: If they’re having difficulty sleeping, encourage them to try some different sleep strategies. These can include creating a regular evening routine, listening to white (or pink or brown) noise, or ensuring they don’t spend too much time in bed during the day. Remember that all four aspects of Te whare tapa whā are connected, and that each one will affect the others. Gaining control of your physical health will have a positive impact on your overall wellbeing.

Grief and its emotions

For most young people, whānau / family is the foundation of their wellbeing; it’s their sense of physical and emotional safety. Losing a loved one shakes this foundation and can cause them to question everything. There have been many different models developed by researchers to explain the phases of grief. The most well-known of these is Kübler-Ross’ five stages (denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance). In reality, grief is personal and unpredictable. We can feel these emotions – and many others – at any time and in any order.

What you can do to help

Talking about death and grief can be difficult in our society, and this can make it hard for mātātahi / young people to express their grief openly. Mātua / parents and caregivers can make the difference by creating a safe environment where there is space for the young person’s feelings and needs without judgement.

As adults, we often try to protect mātātahi / young people from our emotions. If you are grieving too, express your own grief in their presence. You can model healthy ways of grieving by talking openly about how you’re feeling and demonstrating the coping strategies that work for you. For example, ‘I’m feeling really sad that it’s [name]’s birthday next week, maybe we could all sit down and plan together how we’ll spend the day’. This sends an important message: what you’re feeling is normal, you are not alone, and there are things you can do to feel more in control.

Denial and Numbness

What to look out for

For mātātahi / young people whose loved one has just died, the first reaction may be denial. Denial can function like an emotional buffer against the overwhelming reality of death. This can be helpful, because it allows the young person to process the loss in their own time. But it’s important to recognise the difference between healthy denial, which helps us cope, and avoidance, which can cause grief to become ‘stuck’.

What you can do to help

Gently encourage their transition from denial towards gradual acceptance. Be available and allow plenty of space for them to express their feelings, whatever that looks like for them. Remember this may be at an inconvenient’ or unexpected time (making dinner, during a car ride, or late at night) – do your best to still listen and make as much time as you can to offer support.

If you are worried that they are having difficulty accepting the loss, consider reaching out to a therapist for help.

Fright and Anxiety

What to look out for

They may feel frightened, unable to be on their own or constantly worried about their own death or the death of others close to them. They may feel anxious about what their ‘new normal’ is going to be, or how their friendships, activities or responsibilities might change.

What you can do to help

Reassure them that they are safe, and that their needs will be met. Respect their boundaries but bethere and be consistent in your support. Talk through the ways in which their life will change, and the plans you’ll make to ensure they can keep doing the things that are important to them. If you are worried their need for reassurance, or their avoidance of certain activities, is becoming problematic, reach out for some extra support.

Anger and Frustration

What to look out for

The death of a loved one often feels like a loss of control. It can feel deeply unfair – like the world is against us. These feelings often translate into anger and frustration for grieving mātātahi / young people. Without a safe outlet for their anger, it can be harmful. Watch out for irritability, reckless or unsafe decision-making, self-harm, or a reliance on alcohol and drugs. If you see any sign that they are a risk to themselves or others, seek professional help immediately.

What you can do to help

The first step is to acknowledge that it’s okay to feel angry. Help them to recognise when they are becoming frustrated or angry, and what triggers those emotions. A tool such as a 0-10 rating scale on which they can rate the strength of their anger is a good way to describe and understand how they’re feeling.

Channelling anger into constructive outlets can also help. Make sure they still have access to hobbies and activities they enjoy or encourage them to try something new. This could mean getting involved in a new sport or letting them express themselves through a creative outlet like art, music, cooking or writing.


What to look out for

They may be asking themselves questions like ‘What did I do to cause this?’ or ‘Why do I deserve to live?’ This is called Survivor’s Guilt, and it creates a kind of ‘broken record’ of harmful thoughts that plays constantly in our heads. They may also have regrets about things they did or said while the person was alive.

What you can do to help

Have a conversation about the bigger picture of living and dying from a philosophical point of view. Reassure them that nothing they’ve done or said has caused this to happen – there is no logic to life or death. Work together on changing the negative self-talk and noticing that not all thoughts we have are helpful. Practise thoughts of self-compassion, self-love and worthiness.


What to look out for

Some bereaved mātātahi / young people might prefer to spend more time with their friends than their whānau / family, and that’s okay. Others may feel as though they can no longer relate to their peers, embarrassed about what’s happened to them, or have lowered self-esteem. This could mean they become withdrawn and isolated.

What you can do to help

Walk alongside them. Foster positive relationships with their friends and extended whānau / family members. Look for a support group where they can be among peers who will understand and empathise with them, or even an unrelated group activity/sport where there is less pressure on creating conversation from scratch.

Moving forward

Mātātahi / young people grieve differently to adults. Some mātātahi / young people will find ways to ‘be’ with their grief; others will need more hands-on support. With loving, consistent support, the young person in your life can learn to grow, and eventually to thrive, around their grief. Your goal is to guide them towards resilience and a brighter outlook for the future.

At Kenzie’s Gift, we have a wonderful resource for the young person in your life – ‘Memories are Forever’: a kit for grieving mātātahi / young people which extends lots of the above ideas. Order your hard copy here.

Written by Jenny Zilmer