2003: Funerals And Grief Experiences Of Adolescents And Adults

Post-Loss Adjustment And Funeral Perceptions Of Parentally Bereaved Adolescents And Adults investigated whether the death of a parent has a different effect on adolescent survivors than on adults. Although past studies had explored adult reactions to funerals and the grief adaptation experiences of people of different ages after losing a parent, none had investigated the funeral experiences of parentally bereaved adolescents, nor compared such experiences with those of adults.1

Subjects: 84 parentally bereaved adolescents aged 13-18 (average age = 16, average time since death = 4 years, 2 months). 79 parentally bereaved adults aged 19-66, 90% of whom were age 25 or older (average age = 41, average time since death = 1 year). Texas and Minnesota.

Main findings

Adolescent subjects had worse emotional adjustment and more negative experiences and perceptions all around than did the adults.

Time since the death of their parent did not change the adolescents’ grief-related feelings.

The younger people were much less satisfied with the funeral, especially with viewing the body.

Study detail

Most of the subjects were located through grief and bereavement support organizations, such hospices and churches. Some of the students were recruited through their schools, presumably identified by some adult or support organization after learning of the study. All of the participants volunteered.

Subjects completed several questionnaires that tested for grief-related behavior and feelings, psychological symptoms that can lead people to seek outpatient help (Somatization, Obsessive-Compulsive, Interpersonal Sensitivity, Depression, and Anxiety), and their sensitivity to social expectations (probably mainly for the younger subjects). They also completed a questionnaire about their perceptions of the funeral.

The researchers analyzed the wealth of data to answer these main questions:

  • What is their current level of grief-related feelings?
  • What psychological or other problems do they have?
  • What were their perceptions of the funeral?
  • Are there differences among the subjects based on time since the death?
  • What are the differences between the younger and older groups?

Results

On the measures of psychological and social wellness, the adolescents scored significantly higher in “interpersonal sensitivity,” which suggests that the bereaved adolescents are prone to greater social uneasiness, more negative assumptions about personal communications, and more feelings of inadequacy and inferiority than the adults.

Adolescents were also were worse off than the adult subjects in most other psychological categories but not by a lot, with negatives around 5% higher.

Time since death did not reduce the adolescents’ negative grief feelings, and also there was no difference among adult subjects in grief levels based on time since their parents’ deaths.

On “present” grief misery levels, the adolescents were more worse off, from 15%-20% higher than the adults.

On the measures of funeral ritual satisfaction, there was a bigger difference between the groups.

For overall funeral satisfaction, the younger group was about 40% more negative.

Adolescents were much less satisfied with the funeral’s “help in coping,” scoring about 50% higher in dissatisfaction than the adults.

And on the measure of “appearance” of their parent’s body at the viewing, adolescents were over 100% more dissatisfied. In the entire report, this was the area of biggest statistical difference between the two age groups, although the authors did not highlight the finding.

Additional observations

On the whole, the adolescents who lost a parent had more intense grief reactions and worse psychological adjustment.

Previous studies on adolescents and grief had shown different results regarding how grief changes over time. The present study found that grief levels did not vary among respondents based on time since death, and in fact the younger subjects were experiencing significantly higher grief effects than the adults, even though the average time since death for the younger group was about four times longer.

The adolescents’ higher scores on interpersonal sensitivity accords with what we usually think of teenagers, as being more sensitive to what their peers think.

With regard to the substantially worse perceptions of the funeral elements by the younger group, the authors suggest different types of ceremonies, such as “more personalized and less formal,” would be worth trying. They also note that younger people unfamiliar with funerals may find them less helpful in any case:

Given the often traumatic and unforeseen nature of the death of one’s parent(s), perhaps funerals as mourning rituals cannot meet the needs of grieving adolescents.

As with some of the other studies I’ve summarized, this one used volunteer subjects. Thus, there is a caveat that the self-selected population studied may be different than the population as a whole. Because so many of these individuals were found via support institutions, it is possible they have a bias regarding death and their own grief experiences that might not be shared by other people.

Also, the retrospective nature of the testing may have some effect on how the individuals report their various states (versus how they experienced them at the time).

There is an open question about “children and funerals” which I may address at some point, but I think it is not one for which hard and fast rules have been established. Most likely, as with just about everything else in the grief subject area, reactions of different people will be different. But this study suggests pretty strongly that young people will perceive the ceremonies differently than adults. Maybe when a parent dies, more thought needs to be given to the ceremonies, and the arrangers should try to envision the events from a young person’s point of view.


  1. Heather L. Servaty-Seib and Bert Hayslip, “Post-Loss Adjustment and Funeral Perceptions of Parentally Bereaved Adolescents and Adults,” OMEGA – Journal of Death and Dying 46, no. 3 (May 2003): 251–61, https://doi.org/10.2190/UN6Q-MKBH-X079-FP42

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