Ask NCFY: Helping Youth Workers Deal With a Young Person's Death

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Photograph of a young woman consoling another sad young woman.

Q. A young person who was staying in our emergency shelter for homeless youth recently passed away. We’ve offered counseling and support to youth. But our staff is still reeling and having trouble coping. How can we help them deal with their grief?

A. First, please accept our condolences. No matter the circumstances, the death of a young person is shocking and tragic.

You’re right to worry about your staff. When a client of a social services agency dies, it’s normal for staff members to go through waves of hurt, anger, depression, shock, denial and guilt, says Brandon Hunt, a professor who teaches human services at Pennsylvania State University. “Any of the ‘stages of grief’ are all normal reactions,” he says.

Youth workers dealing with a client’s death may also have “reactive behaviors,” he says, like lashing out at their clients, feeling depressed and having difficulty getting through day-to-day tasks. 

You can help by empathizing and encouraging your employees to take care of themselves, Hunt says. Advise them to keep living their lives and doing the hobbies that interest them. Tell them how important it is to eat breakfast each morning, get a good night’s rest and just generally stay in good health. Suggest that they might want to write their memories of the deceased youth in a journal.

You can take more formal steps, as well. Joey Lopez recalls the death 12 years ago of Ali Forney, a young client of what was then the Safe Space Center, a runaway and homeless youth program in New York. Lopez, an outreach worker who still works at the center (since renamed the Ali Forney Center), says the organization took a number of steps to help staff members cope with the devastating loss.

Youth workers learned of Forney’s murder at an emergency staff meeting, where they could lean on each other for support. Then the center arranged for grief counseling at an outside agency, so staff members, if they chose to visit, could work through their feelings about the death. Staff also was told they could take as much time off as they needed to grieve. And the center had an “open door policy,” which meant staff could discuss their feelings about Ali’s death at any time with anyone else on staff. 

Lopez says the end goal is to “process it, go through the feelings, and not let it affect your job.” That may be easier for some staff members than for others, but the more you support your staff, the easier it will be for them to navigate this difficult time.

More Information

NCFY has written about how staff of youth-serving agencies can avoid burnout.

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