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  • Writer's pictureKaren Smith

Support for young people experiencing the sudden or unexpected death of a friend

Friendships are very important to us and can sometimes be just as important to us as family. When a friend or peer dies, feelings of grief can be overwhelming. These feelings may be even more difficult to handle if the death is traumatic and sudden, it can be difficult even if the person who has died was not a close friend. They may have been someone that you have grown up with throughout your school years or someone that you admired. It is understandable to believe that death happens to the older generation, so when a friend or peers dies, it forces us to come face to face with our own mortality and those we care about.

So what is grief?

Grief is an emotional response to the death of someone we know and you may experience a range of emotions. It can affect how you feel physically, mentally and socially. Everyone grieves differently, some people experience feelings of guilt, anger or irritability while others may feel numb. Some will experience delayed grief and waves of emotion weeks or even months after the death. Sometimes feelings and emotions can catch us when we are least expecting it. Often special days are reminders and difficult to deal with such as birthdays, Christmas, exam results day, graduation or special performances. There's no right or wrong way to grieve, what you are feeling is a normal part of the grieving process.

There are a number of symptoms of grief that are completely normal. Most young people will get through this experience with the support of family, friends or their teachers. Some of these symptoms are:

  • Shock

  • Sadness

  • Guilt

  • Anger

  • Numbness

  • Abandonment

  • Concerns for your own safety

  • Anxiety or panic

It is common for young people to express thoughts that they should have been able to prevent their friends death, for example, being with their friend at the time of their death or doing more to support them. The reality is that you could not have predicted that this was going to happen and there is no doubt that you would have done everything you could to prevent it. However, things sometimes happen and we have no way of predicting them. This was not your fault.

Sometimes young people feel guilty that they were having relationship problems with the friend who has died prior to their death. This is very hard to cope with but all relationships have their ups and downs. Friends don't always get on all of the time and it is normal to argue sometimes and then make up. There was no way to predict that your friend was going to die.

Working through your grief

When you lose a friend or peer, it is often hard to imagine life without them. You are not alone and knowing the 7 stages of grief might help you to understand some of the emotions that you are feeling. The 7 stages of grief are a good guide to what to expect but it is important to know that you may go through stages at different times, go through some stages at the same time or return to some stages throughout the grieving process.

Expressing your grief

It is important to express your grief in a way that feels right for you. Here are 6 creative ways that you might like to try.

1) Create a memory box

Memory boxes are a lovely way to remember a friend who has died. Fill it with memorable items such as cards, photos, ticket stubs, festival wristbands, letters, postcards of places you have been together, a record of your favourite memories and you can include funeral service sheets.

2) Tangled Ball of Grief Art

Create your own tangled ball of grief art. You will need some paper and a choice of paints or drawing/colouring materials. You can choose a colour to represent each different emotion. This is a nice exercise to revisit and re-do over time so that you can see how your emotions are changing.

3) Create a comfort box

A comfort box is a space filled with items that will help you to pick yourself up, recharge, calm you down and provide some comfort when you are feeling low. Items could include: positive affirmation cards; art materials; a journal; favourite book; soft blanket; playlist of favourite music; pictures of loved ones; a stress ball. It could also be helpful to include a safety plan. A safety plan includes contact details of people you can reach out to, things that help you when you feel down, a list of ways to distract yourself and ways to keep yourself safe.

4) Keep a creative journal

There are many different styles and methods of journaling that are great ways of recording your thoughts. You can combine writing with drawing, painting & collage. Journaling is an effective tool for helping you to manage your thoughts & feelings. Remember, journaling is about the process rather than the final product.

5) Write a song, rap, short story or poem

Finding creative ways of expressing our emotions following the loss of a friend can be a powerful way of helping ourselves, processing what has happened and making sense of something. This exercise can be done on your own or as part of a group. Working as a group provides a way for you to connect with others going through a similar experience.

6) Write an un-sent letter to your friend

Many young people find writing things down a helpful way to express their feelings. When a friend dies, you may have things you wish you could have said to them, feelings you want to let out, or you may want to write down the things you will miss about that person. One way to do this is to write an unsent letter. You write the letter the same way that you normally would but you never send the letter. You can keep your letter or sometimes young people like to do something symbolic with it like take it to a special place, put it on a grave, some tear it up and others bury it in the garden. You can do what feels right for you.

Grieving is a natural process but it is also important to celebrate the life of your friend or peer.

Celebrate the life of your friend and talk about the memories. There will be tears, but there will be lots of laughter and funny stories too. Don't be scared to talk happily about your friend or peer and celebrate the life they had and the friends that they shared.

It takes time to work through grief and it's helpful to go through this with the support from others. If you are struggling to come to terms with the death of a friend, finding daily life hard and things don't seem to be improving, it can help to talk to someone. Tell a trusted friend, family member or teacher how you are feeling. If you're feeling very worried, you can speak to a professional and get support from a counsellor.

Signs that you may need further support:

  • feelings of low mood that aren't improving

  • withdrawing from family and friends

  • on-going sleep problems and nightmares

  • high levels of anxiety

  • feelings of guilt and responsibility

  • anger, irritability or physically fighting

  • difficulty concentrating, struggling with school work or no longer wanting to go to school

  • risk taking behaviours such as drug and alcohol abuse

  • physical issues such as headaches, pain, feeling sick and tiredness

  • worrying a lot about something bad happening to you or your friends

  • experiencing distressing images

  • suicidal or self-harming thoughts, plans or actions (please seek help straight away if this is happening).

Here are details of other organisations that can help:

Winston's Wish

You can contact their helpdesk: call 0808 802 0021

They are open 9am - 5pm, Monday - Friday

Crisis Messenger - Text WW to 85258 (24/7 support for young people in crisis)

Hope Again

Cruse Bereavement Care's website for young people experiencing grief.

If you are a young person and someone you know has died, you can send a private email to: & speak with a trained volunteer.

If you want to talk to someone directly: call their FREE helpline 0808 808 1677

Open 9.30 - 5pm Monday - Friday

Young Minds Text line

Text YM to 85258

Provides free, 24/7 text support for young people across the UK experiencing a mental health crisis.

Opening times 24/7


If you're under 19 you can confidentially call, chat online or email about any problem.

Sign up for a free Childline locker (real name or email address not needed) to use their free 1-2-1 counsellor chat and email support services.

Free phoneline: 0800 11 11

Open 9am - midnight, 365 days a year.

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