Seasonal Grief: How to Support Young People Processing a Loss This Winter

Grief is the natural response we have to significant losses. Many students notice that grief is increasingly on their minds as the days become shorter at the end of autumn. For example, grief can resurface as students face academic milestones and holiday planning without the person they have lost. This may or may not be related to, or exacerbated by, what the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5) calls Major Depressive Disorder with Seasonal Pattern, which is commonly known as Seasonal Affective Disorder, or SAD.

Most often, you’ll hear the term “grief” in relation to the death of a loved one. But it’s also possible to experience grief after other types of important losses, such as relationship ending, death of a pet, or the loss of a job or home. It’s normal to yearn for or mourn something that feels valuable and irreplaceable.

Although grief itself is not a mental health condition, it is a profoundly difficult emotional, physical, and spiritual experience. The aftermath of a major loss can shake our values and cause changes in family and relationship dynamics. That can be especially hard for students to sort through while juggling the typical demands of the academic year. It may also feel confusing; reactions to loss can range from numbness to sobbing, and may include unexpected physical, cognitive, and social effects. Like any other major life stressor, grief can negatively impact mental health. Therefore, it’s important that a young person is encouraged to develop consistent coping practices and take care of themself after a loss.

What is the Relationship Between Grief and Mental Health?

In March 2022, the American Psychiatric Association added “prolonged grief disorder” to the DSM-5. This refers to severe grief that creates significant daily distress, to a disabling level, more than one year after the loss. Prolonged grief disorder should be assessed and treated by a mental health professional.

How Do Young People Experience Grief?

Whereas everyone eventually experiences grief and loss, it can be especially isolating for young adults. Young adults are too old for children’s support groups and services, which offer solidarity and a built-in social network during a difficult time. But many young people who confront the loss of a loved one discover that they are the first person among their friends to experience grief. Their peers likely can not relate to the death of a parent or sibling, and they may not experience that type of profound loss for decades; however, it can feel lonely when others don’t understand what you are going through. People may say insensitive things because they are trying too hard to be “positive.” They might avoid the student who is suffering or avoid the topic of loss around them, simply because they don’t know what to say.

As a caring adult in their life, you can provide support–even from a distance. The first thing that you should know is that healing is a process and it is not linear. Grief can wax or wane. It can feel fresh when it resurfaces, even if the loss wasn’t very recent.

Therefore, you don’t need to wait until you see signs of stress before talking to your loved one about seasonal grief.

It’s important to let them know that they shouldn’t get too down on themselves on the days that they feel especially unproductive, angry, or overwhelmed in the coming months. Similarly, tell the young person in your life that it’s fine to miss someone but still laugh or feel OK. Make sure they know: “It’s important to give yourself the grace and compassion you would offer to others.”

You should let them know that nobody “gets over” the permanent loss of someone special. The pain and ache eventually shift as we learn how to live with loss, but there is no standard timeline for how each of us reach that point. Every grief journey is as unique as the loss itself.

Here are a few other things to consider:

  • When life feels out of control it’s more important than ever for young people to take care of their body’s core needs, like eating, sleeping, and hydrating. Encouraging self-care is one way you can help.
  • There are many different ways for someone to express themselves: People worldwide utilize modalities such as music, dance, writing, or drawing to help process powerful emotions.
  • There are many ways to preserve a connection with a lost loved one: Displaying a favorite photo, creating an altar at home, cherishing a keepsake item, or maintaining a shared hobby are all healthy ways to cope with grief.
  • Recommend reaching out to others who can relate to what they’re going through: They can follow grief-related accounts on social media or find a local support group.
  • Be aware that special occasions or specific topics might be emotionally triggering. Provide extra support at this time or learn if they have plans to be around supportive people, which might include community leaders or mentors. Let them know that you are willing to modify traditions if the old ones feel too painful right now.
  • Therapy is not necessary for all grievers, but it can be particularly helpful if a loss was unexpected, if a young person feels unresolved issues with the deceased, if the circumstances around the loss were complex, or if your loved one is coping with multiple losses.
  • Remember that grieving does not follow a schedule. It’s OK for your loved one to process their feelings at a pace that is different from that of other people. It’s normal for them to re-process grief as they evolve through different life stages. Remain present for them at each stage and allow them to tell you where they are and what they need.

What Does Healing Look Like, and How Can You Offer Support?

For books and resources to help teens and young adults cope with grief, see this list compiled by the New York Public Library. For advice on what to say to someone who is grieving, explore this thoughtful resource. Find a community of individuals who understand what you are going through here. To cope with feelings of depression, isolation, or hopelessness caused by grief, explore JED’s Mental Health Resource Center.

Helen H. Hsu, PsyD, is a former President of the Asian American Psychological Association. She is a bilingual (Mandarin) staff psychologist and lecturer at Stanford University. Hsu began her career in campus youth mental health serving public schools in the cities of Oakland and Fremont, CA. She has been a clinical supervisor, consultant, and trainer since 2001. Hsu completed a three-year term on the American Psychological Association (APA) Committee on Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender Concerns and is current Chair of the APA Minority Fellowship Program Training Advisory Committee. Her work focuses upon culturally responsive campus mental health services, grief and bereavement support, and mentoring and developing culturally responsive leaders in psychology.

Get Help Now

If you or someone you know needs to talk to someone right now, text, call, or chat 988 for a free confidential conversation with a trained counselor 24/7. 

You can also contact the Crisis Text Line by texting HOME to 741-741.

If this is a medical emergency or if there is immediate danger of harm, call 911 and explain that you need support for a mental health crisis.