A 16-year-old young man from Arizona describes how his father used to wake him up in the morning and encourage him to start the day. With the loss of his father to COVID-19, the absence of this ritual is deeply felt. “Going to school can be a huge challenge,” the young man explains. “Even like getting out of bed and getting dressed in the morning. It’s like the number one obstacle of the day.”

He shares how the emotional impact of his father’s loss manifests differently from day-to-day:

“One day I might be happy. One day I might be just extremely distressed and in shambles.”

With the emotional variability that comes with grief, supportive adults at home and at school who are committed to responding to his evolving needs have made a positive difference. When he sometimes finds himself in class on the verge of what feels like an anxiety or panic attack, he has the freedom to step outside, go to the counselor’s office to talk, or simply go sit in a quiet place.

He has felt empowered to reach out to a teacher designated as an advocate for him and other students. If he’s having a rough day, he sends an email to the advocate who then communicates with his teachers on his behalf. She also checks up on him personally. “It’s good,” the teen says, “it’s nice knowing that like someone’s there for you at school, like an adult.” Additionally, his school is understanding of his need to take a mental health day at times as this has proven an important coping mechanism for the young man when he needs time and space to regroup and sort through his emotions.

Outside of school, his mother has been a main support “because we’re both going through the same loss.” They attend a community grief support group together and have found camaraderie and understanding there. Through this group, they can get together regularly with other families who are going through a similar experience. The teen appreciates how easy it is to talk to others in the group since they can relate to what he’s feeling.

Getting to spend time with good friends has been a pivotal piece of the 16-year-old’s support system. The teen says, “I think it’s important to be out with your friends. I think it’s important for parents or even a lot of other guardians in general to understand that the kid … or teenager needs time with their friends.” He says teenagers tend to be more open with their friends than with their families. He elaborates that talking to adults when going through grief or trauma can be challenging; sometimes adults will misinterpret a teenager’s strong emotions and won’t recognize the signs that they need help. Most importantly, he advises adults: “Don’t try to explain their feelings for them … You need to let them speak for themselves.”