Regardless of our age, when someone we have a connection to dies, we grieve. Even babies can detect the absence of a parent or caregiver. From days old, infants respond to the presence or absence of certain people. They identify and become familiar with their person’s scent or touch. Although they don’t yet understand the concept of death, they can experience loss when familiarity is not present.
Young children struggle with understanding that death is permanent and irreversible. But, as they grow and develop, they begin to understand death. They learn how bodies work and how they stop working. And by the time they reach older childhood / early adolescence, they’ve learned that death is permanent, irreversible, and even universal. Death will happen to everyone, including them and those around them.
After a death loss, many begin to learn coping tools and strategies to cope with the intense, foreign feelings associated with loss. For the young, it’s often caregivers and other important people who remain consistent in their lives that help young children feel safe and provide healthy coping skills to help them understand their world. Yet for an emerging young adult, they rely less on the family as they seek to take on more responsibility and independence.
The simultaneous growth of understanding about death as well as the new opportunities for independence and the weight of these new responsibilities make grieving in young adulthood a unique challenge. Couple this with common transitions like going to college or getting a new job, moving, or the breakup of a romantic relationship, the supports that were once in place may feel particularly fragile.
So how do we support best these emerging young adults? First, we must understand that grief cannot be fixed. So, offering advice, particularly to this precarious age group, might be interpreted as a bit condescending and counterintuitive. But the reality is that this age group is most in need of support and direction. Without it, unhealthy coping can be realized with alcohol and substance abuse behaviors to numb this feeling of overwhelming pain temporarily…This thing called grief.
Feelings of grief and the isolation usually associated with it cannot be taken away or glossed over with alcohol or drugs. Instead, a young adult often needs direction, understanding, support, and connections to others who understand their feelings. Connections to others help normalize both the emotional and physiological experiences of grief. And connections are often vital to healthy post bereavement growth.
So, how do we guide these young adults who are likely in the middle of many life transitions while we might be grieving a significant connection of our own? Here are few ideas. They may not all work for everyone, but perhaps you can find a tool you haven’t tried before.
Join a support group. Being with other people going through similar things in a structured setting may provide the comfort needed. It’s an opportunity to learn from others and be able to share one’s own experience with others who understand. Being with strangers who understand is easier than being with close friends who do not. It may be easier to be more authentic in a setting like this where judgment seldom exists. At HealGrief.org, you can learn more about our young adults and adults of any age support group.
Participate in events or activities that interest you. Have you always wanted to try guitar lessons or wanted to learn how to garden? Joining a class or club may provide you with new friends, an outlet to express yourself, and an opportunity to engage in something that you find enjoyable. Some people have reported difficulty finding pleasure in things they once enjoyed when they are grieving. So, try something new!
Host a dinner for the people that have been there for you in the past. You can use this dinner to say thank you for listening, giving you rides, walking your dog, or helping you study. Or you can use this dinner to say that you are struggling and want to bring “your people” together to let them know that you need them right now. That you need them even when you don’t let them know you do. You can meet individually for a coffee to talk if you don’t want to host a dinner. Or you can invite friends/family to play a game of basketball, go for a walk, or even a zoom gathering. Whatever feels comfortable for you, this is a way to stay connected to people who can support you.