Funerals: Memorial Services for Teenagers

Planning a memorial service or funeral after a teen's death

By Janet Harvey
From Remembering Well by Sarah York

As one of the youth leaders in a church and as a chaplain in a major trauma center, I have witnessed and sat with the grief of teenagers and young adults. Their grief is not different from anyone else’s, but it comes at a time in life when death is not supposed to happen. The capricious nature of death shatters their sense of immortality. When a friend or classmate dies, or when a parent or respected adult dies early in life, teenagers and young adults have their own particular struggles and needs in the face of death. The stories of Jim, Steven and Beth illustrate some of what teens have taught me about their special needs.


When Jim left the party, friends tried to take his keys. He and some of the others had been drinking beer all afternoon. “I’m fine,” he said as he and Simon took off in the small pickup truck. Rounding a curve, they drove right into a tree. The truck caromed off of the tree and rolled over into a ditch. Three hours later, Simon was in the morgue and Jim was in the emergency trauma room. Their friends found out about the accident and arrived at the hospital before any family members. Unable to get any information because they were not family members, they roamed the halls trying to find out what was happening and to support one another. Some of the hospital staff wanted them to leave. “Just go home. There is nothing you can do here. We can’t tell you anything.” They could not leave. They needed to be close to their friends, Jim and Simon. They needed to be with one another. Some of them gathered in groups of two or three – one crying and the others being supportive, one angry and the others calming him down, one sobbing and feeling totally responsible because she let Jim leave. Her friends held her and tried to let her know it wasn’t her fault.

Jim’s family arrived shortly before Jim died. They included his best friend, Jake, as they went into the trauma room in the emergency department to say goodbye. Later, Jake and the hospital chaplain went to the chapel where Jim and Simon’s friends (and the friends of the friends) were gathered. Jake and the chaplain told them that Jim and Simon had died. No one in that moment could have understood the pain and grief like their friends.

Often youths hear about a fatal injury or death before family and will need to get together in a place where they can be with one another. A trusted adult may gather the teens at the hospital, college chapel, school or church. They need to be together. It is too hard to go home alone with the questions, the fears and the grief. Their friends understand and offer support in ways that parents often cannot provide.


Some of the most comforting memorial services to adult friends and relatives may not speak to the grief of teens or young adults. Youths have their own experiences with their friends that parents and other adults do not know and often do not understand. They need to shed their tears, tell their stories, play their music and share their emotions in ways that often do not fit the services created for the families. Youths need to grieve and remember in their own unique ways.

Steven died of a drug overdose just before Christmas. Many of his friends were home from college visiting their families. The word went out, and the other friends arrived one by one. A traditional service was planned at Steven’s father’s church. Steven’s friends were upset by the service. Other than mentioning Steven’s name, nothing was said about who Steven was or how he had touched others’ lives.

Following the service, everyone was invited to walk with the family to the outdoor chapel where Steven’s ashes would be placed. After an equally dry and traditional committal, one of the mothers of Steven’s friends, who had led many of them in singing, began a song that spoke to the grief and the pain that these youths felt. They began singing and the tears came. Then they began telling the stories they remembered about Steven, laughing and crying.

Later in the spring, Steven’s mother held a memorial service for Steven on the Sunday closest to his birthday. This was to be a service that celebrated Steven in accordance with his own spirituality and beliefs. A candle was lighted in Steven’s memory by the minister who had been active while Steven was a member of the youth group at that church. Steven’s drama teacher told stories about Steven as an actor and student. The mothers of a number of Steven’s friends provided music that they had all shared. Friends told stories of his care and concern for them as they lighted a candle to his memory. At the completion of the service, the candle lighted for Steven was extinguished, but the light from the candles of memories and wishes remained. Afterward, all were invited to have cake and ice cream in celebration of his birth.


A few months before her 18th birthday, Beth took her own life. The daughter of the president of the congregation, Beth was well known to almost everyone in the church. Her death shocked the adults. Beth’s memorial service spoke to their questions and their concerns for the family and themselves, but her friends needed something more.

The youths were aware that Beth could be the most caring, funny and generous friend in the world but was also deeply depressed. They had been worried about her for months. She had tried to end her life before, and they knew that. Upon notification of her death, the youths gathered at the church, and I met with them. They sat in a familiar circle with an empty space that was very naturally left for the presence of Beth. They shared their fears, their sense of responsibility and guilt, and their love for her. Together we planned a service that would take place shortly after the service in the church. Her friends decided that the service would incorporate her music and her words. It would also express our pain in her choice of leaving us so soon and our joy in her being part of our lives.

After the end of the church service, we gathered the memorial flowers according to our prearranged plan. Youths, adults and a few children who had been very close to Beth drove to a special spot high above the Blue Ridge Parkway. We gathered in a small clearing and listened to an instrumental piece by Pink Floyd. On a cloth in the middle of our circle were placed the flowers, her pictures and objects that reminded us of Beth. We shared our thoughts, our memories, her poems and her music, closing with Pink Floyd’s “Wish You Were Here.” Then we each took a flower. Finding our own special spot and saying our own personal words, we tossed the flower over the edge of the mountain.

What do youths need? Here are a few elements that are important when a young person dies:

• Time to be alone and time together with friends.
• Support in knowing what is normal in grief: numbness, loss of appetite, crying, anger, inability to concentrate, fears, strange dreams and nightmares.
• Adults who will listen. Supportive people who can hold them and witness their anger and tears.
• Ways to express their grief and trusting that they will find those ways – through writing, talking, poetry, music, activity.
• Ways to incorporate their creative expressions and knowledge of their friend in a service.
• Youths closest to the deceased may need tangible objects – things that belonged to their friend that may have no meaning to an adult, such as a poster, a pin, a ticket stub to a concert, photographs, copies of poems or drawings. They may need something to hold on to, something to let go.
• If there is to be a burial, sometimes youth are invited to place special items (poems tucked in a pocket, a flower) in the casket. “Something of me goes with you, just as something of you will always remain with me.”

Janet Harvey is a Unitarian Universalist minister, mediator and hospital chaplain. She is also an artist, poet and woodcrafter.

Related Articles:
Sudden Death
Writing a Condolence Note to a Grieving Child or Teen
Youth Suicide: What You Can Say and Do to Help the Survivors

Also by Sarah York:
When an Infant Dies
Giving Sorrow Words
Planning a Memorial Service after a Suicide

Sarah York Sarah York is an author and Unitarian Universalist minister. Her book Remembering Well: Rituals for Celebrating Life and Mourning Death, now available in a new paperback edition, speaks to people who do not want a religious or spiritual context for ritual as well as those who do. The book received outstanding reviews from numerous publications, including Publishers Weekly, USA Today, The Washington Post, and the American Journal of Hospice and Palliative Care. Ms. York is semi-retired and is available as a keynote speaker and workshop presenter on topics related to her books.

Image Source: Flickr Creative Commons/nutmeg


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Comment by Nicole Jurgens on June 22, 2013 at 7:33pm
I am with all of you, sharing the loss and continued pain of losing a teenage prayers are with each one of you! June 5th of last year 2012 my beautiful 15 year old daughter Daysha suffered a severe asthma attack. Her heart stopped as the medics were working on her in our home...they took her to the emergency room by ambulance where the doctors there got her heart back beating after almost an hour of no heartbeat. She was placed in the PICU where after 4 days (june 9th)she was taken off of the ventilator and breathing on her own. Her eyes were opening but not responding well as a fever which was hard to control even with medication. After an MRI I was told (on June 11th) that she suffered complete damage to her brain from being without oxygen for so long. The only functioning portion was the brain stem which was so misleading because she looked right at me, her nerostorms seemed to calm at the sound of my voice...I still felt my daughter there in her body. June 18th I was suppose to tell them my decision on putting a tube in her stomach and moving her someplace long term or comfort care. The morning of the 17th I woke up next to her with the formula coming from her nose and mouth...her body was rejecting it. After removing the feeding tube and doing comfort care she passed away at 5:10am June 20th while I held her hand,(having a hyperventilating fit). I truly believe in my heart that she came back for those 15 days for me! There are so many ironies I now see within her life that only she would do it somehow to make it symbolic for me! She was 15 yrs old, 15 days in the hospital, and was also 15 weeks pregnant with my grandson (I found out the sex in the autopsy report). Born November 20th..died June 20th! I have spent the last 12 months obsessing over answers to why this has become my destiny. I have 2 other children...Samiya age 13, and Christopher age 7. Daysha was my best friend, my oldest, and the only one who acted JUST like me! My soul has had this void and I really have been sleepwalking through these last 12 months! I had sent my other kids away during those months in order to allow myself to feel the pain completely without them watching their mom become a nut case! They are back with me since the 21st...the day after the 1st yr hurdle! And to be honest I'm terrified that something will happen again and I won't be there in time again! Woulda's coulda's should haves are still eating away at my heart! Thank you for allowing me to share my story (or ramble as I often feel I am doing)!
Comment by Kathryn Augie's mom on January 25, 2012 at 4:50pm

I fought rumors for months and still do that my babe died from an overdose and then having to explain he had a congenital weakend artery in his brain and people asking what could i have done more, the answer is nothing. The artery that ruptured as i watched in the ER where I work was the main artery between the 2 hemisperes of the brain. Until an event happens it is not something that would be a concern otherwise. My son did have headaches from early we saw his doctor and specialists nothing was picked up. I have told many although I don"t owe anyone an explanation because it does"nt matter how he died he was my son and he is gone I will tell you so his memory is"nt tarnished by misinformation.

Comment by Kathryn Augie's mom on January 25, 2012 at 4:07pm

my son told his best friend a few weeks before he passed that if he ever died no one would come to his funeral. The funeral directors last counted 498 people in attendence. I never wanted the last word on this subject. its been 13 months and my heart breaks more and more everyday from the absence of my son. Now just 6 days ago and just 10 days after a diagnosis I have lost my father.

Comment by Kathy on May 14, 2010 at 7:25pm
Hi, I was reading your comment and just had to reply. On May 7, 2004, my 18 year old son Andrew, "Drew' as we called him, was out with friends. He was approached by two animals who thought he was someone else. They told him to give up his stuff, but all he had on him was 2 dollars. That wasn't enough so they shot him 13 times. He was rushed to the hospital where he died. My whole world has been devastated. I will never be the same person I once was. There was a trial and the animals were found guilty and will never again harm another person, but that still doesn't bring my Drew back to me. I will mourn him till I join him. The craziest thing is that 8 years before Drew was murdered, my 17 year old son Vinnie died tragically and unexpectedly on January 28, 1996. He was my firstborn and my everything. Now I grieve for two beautiful boys who were taken before they really had a chance to live. I am so sorry for your loss and if you ever want to talk, please let me know. I live in Philadelphia and can give you my number if you would like. If not, I understand as well. Sometimes it is just enough to make it through the day. I wish you peace and strength in the sad times ahead. Kathy (Vinnie & Drew's mom) Delete Comment
Comment by Beverly Strain on March 30, 2010 at 1:26pm
I lost my 18yr old son Timothy on August 6,2009.It has been a devasting loss to my husband and I and are remaining 2 sons.He burnt his right hand severely at a landscaping job ,he was doing this until college started in Sept 2009.He had first and second degree burns on hbis hand.He never was a complainer and I knew the pain to be incredible.We took him right away to the doctor who then referred to Burn center.His pain was so intense,nothing was taking his pain away even though he was prescribed pain medication.On August 5,2009,the day before he died,I took him to the burn center and they lanced the bubble which covered his whole hand.They scraped and bandaged his hand.We were return the following Monday to see how well it healed because there was a chance that he still might need a skin graft.The doctors felt positive and since I am a nurse they trusted me to treat until Monday.They also prescribed stronger pain medication.He was in incredible pain and I wanted him to stay home with me but instead he wanted to see his girlfirend who was picking him up to go to her house.He had been overseas going to school in Europe and alot of his friends wanted to see him,it had been months.Against my better judgement and my pleas for him not to go but just rest,he went.After all,he said he was 18 and quite capable of taking care of himself he said.He was picked up by his girlfriend at 6;30 pm,that was the last time I ever saw him alive.I called him @7 30 pm that night and invited him to go out to eat with my husband and I.He seemed to want to but he said maybe another time.He told me he would be home @ 12 midnight.he was visiting with friends and his girlfriend and wanted to stay.I agreed to the plan.Later that night,he called us at 11 30 pm and said he wanted to stay overnight,it was getting late,still had friends there,they were playing cards and were about to order wings.He sounded so happy,his speech not slurred,no indication of anything amiss.He told me he loved me and I was his best friend as I always was taking care of him and watched over him.I told him I loved him and still requested he come home and rest.I was worried about the bandage getting dirty or infected.he said he was fine,feeling better and so happy to be with his friends.He told me he would be home in the morning around 8am and I relucantedly agreed.He pulled I am 18,I am a adult thing on me.His father and I felt this time maybe we should let him just enjoy and visit with all of his old friends.The next morning @7am,I received a phone call from his girlfriend crying hysterically I could not even understand what she was saying.It sounded as though she said Timmy is dead but I could not comprehend those words.He was a strong althelete,not into drugs and worked out in the gym.He took his health very seriously and despite a few injuries sustained in football was a perfect healthy young man.I was in total shock because when they found him ,he was already dead,no one called for 911.He was found laying in bed where his friends help place him the night before because he was in such pain and they said he was acting strangely.NO ONE knew that his girlfriends mother had given METHADONE and XANAX around 1pm because she thought she was helping him.I was told that he was told it was maxium Percocet and he trusted this woman and he took it.He WOULD have NEVER taken such things if he knew what they were.It did not make any sense to me either as the doctor had prescribed medication which should have been sufficent.He never told any of his friends what it was .They stayed with him until 3 am,never called us,911 or anyone for help.They thought he would be fine in am and left him covered up in bed.His girlfriend supposedly asleep in another room,she had gone to sleep hours before this.She said she heard him making a fuinny noise breathing around 530 am but went to him,placed a pillow and went back to bed even though when she tried to wake him,he would not respond.I feel as though he was dyi
Comment by sharon francoeur on December 30, 2009 at 12:48pm
MY heart goes out to all that have lost their child. I lost my beautiful stepdaughter , age 18, to a rare cancer. that was Jan 27,2007. 7 months prior I lost my father to cancer, so i really didnt go through the grieving process because my husband and I were so consumed with our Dana. then there was the "lull" a year before we got hit again, this being my father in law. so now i have my husband who has changed into a different man, naturally, but looks like i am the target of the hurt and anger. i feel i am alone. i love my husband very much and it kills me to see what he is going through, but he doesnt see that i have to adapt to all of this, try to grieve my own father, still, but it is like my heartache and feelings do not matter. im in limbo. i am meeting with my minister this week to discuss things, he met with my husband yesterday. Its just my husband got hit all at one time, and thinks he could deal with this himself. finally i called the doctor and he prescribed antidepressents for him(hope they work quick) which i know it will take weeks. he doesnt want to be kissed hugged, sometimes he is quiet, and wants me around but then he doesnt and i told him he is pushing me away, when we should be consoling each other. Is anyone going thruogh this? any suggestions? please help
Comment by Rosie Rivera Dulcich on August 31, 2009 at 6:54am
I lost my daughter on 8-23-08 DEEDEE was 16 years old in a tragic vehicle accident. My life also ended the night she died. My life doesn't exist anymore.This has taken it's toll on my family my spouse lost his mind and is gone from the home,my son is not the same person anymore he was 18 when she died and it's one month after his birthday and this was the sadest and difficult b-day for him he went to bed early pulled the blankets over his head and cried and cried I tried to talk with him and comfort me he yelled at me to get out of his room he misses his sister and can't take it anymore.He
had a few friends over they tried and got no were and walked out his room with tears running down there faces. I'm so consumed with my own grief and pain I do what he does daily he opened my eyes that night not to shut him out and tell him as he did me.He has been hiding his pain I see through him and try but he stays busy never stopping till he is exhausted and just goes to sleep as soon as his head hits the pillow.He has had anger outburts yesterday was the first time in the last 4 months not only with me but his bestfriends that just don't walk out on him and let him do what he has to do to realize his pain.He is blessed with friends that truely love him.I started to write this about myself and my feelings but I just went in a different direction.
Comment by Heather on July 22, 2009 at 3:55pm
I totally understand how U had been now 6 months since the FHP knocked on my door at 1:35am to tell me my Only Son was in a vehicle accident I said Where is He...I hear I'm Sor..& that is it...I ran 2 the bathroom & was sick...there was No way this was happing 2 Me...The Accident happened at 8:30 pm...I last talked with my son at with a text from him like every day was at 1:45pm...All I can tell U is that the pain U feel Does Not go away...but u get used 2 living with it...My Son was My Heart & Soul...My Heart is Broken into a Million pieces But I Know He would Not want me 2 totally fall I Do My Best...that is All U Can Do...U Cry Enough tear 2 fill your own river 7 Remember that tears warm your cheeks..& Never...Ever Be Afraid 2 Say Their Name...This picture here comes from friends of his who are getting married & putting this on what they are calling a Memory Table..with a Monster(the drink)..U would have 2 look at my sons pics to get it...They have also wrote a Wonderfull poem that is being read during their wedding right after after their vowes...& then at the recption they are giving up their first dance for All frinds of my son 2 join them on the dance floor & dance to our song...Simple Man...That was Zachari(Zack)...Now things like this will bring U great joy as U & your son's friends remember will take time...but grieve...cry...say his to him...I go C my Son talk with him...ask 4 his help...the signs R there...He is around...remember however U grieve it is OK....take care...My thoughts R with U...
Comment by Tami on July 16, 2009 at 4:35am
This is My Son that passed away on June 22 2009....I miss him so much, I cant believe this has happened, I need help...I just want him back!

Teen Motorcyclist Killed In Martinez Hwy 4 Crash MARTINEZ

A motorcyclist who was killed in a crash on state Highway 4 near Concord Monday night has been identified as 18-year-old Martinez resident Joseph Scalise, a Contra Costa County deputy coroner said Tuesday.

The crash happened at about 11:15 p.m. on westbound Highway 4 just east of the junction with Interstate Highway 680 between Martinez and Concord, CHP Officer Mike Wright said.

Witnesses told investigators that Scalise had been traveling in the left lane at an extremely high rate of speed when he entered a gradual curve in the road and lost control of his motorcycle, a 1981 Yamaha, Wright said.

The motorcycle veered across all lanes of traffic and onto the dirt median, where Scalise was ejected from the bike.

The motorcycle, meanwhile, continued sliding several hundred feet down the roadway and then burst into flames, Wright said.

Scalise was pronounced dead at the scene.

The crash was initially reported as a multi-vehicle crash, but Wright said Tuesday it appears that several witnesses stopped when they saw what happened but were not actually involved in the crash.
Comment by EdiGonzales on June 17, 2009 at 4:58am
This is Lacey, she was 18, she died May 15 2009 , natural causes. I am her Mom & I died with her. Part of me is alive, I cant figure out where I begin or where I end. I am lost without Lacey. She lives on ... in Spirit, she lives on. I yearn for my baby ...
Comment by kristi on January 7, 2009 at 6:55pm

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