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The Often Neglected Grieving Young Adult

I’ve been a bereavement care professional, working with thousands of children and adults for almost two decades. I’ve bared witness to many beginning their journey with grief, hopelessly, and watched as their grief transformed to hopeful individuals living a more meaningful and thoughtful life.  Until my child matured into a young adult, it never occurred to me that I worked with very few young adults. I seldom pondered on this missed demographic until our family grieved alongside a mom and her two daughters, 16 and 18 respectively, after their father died by suicide; then shortly thereafter, another family’s son, of age 21, was hit by a drunk driver leaving his parents and 17 year old sister to grieve. Fortunately, my experience as a bereavement care professional and friend allowed me to be helpful. But it was evident that few resources were available for these emerging young adults.

Purposefully acknowledging a loved one’s death anniversary can be a proactive way to balance a sense of loss over their death with a celebration of their life, and a celebration of the life shared with them. Your relationship with the deceased, what is comfortable and meaningful to you, timing (how long ago did your loved one die? day of the week, time of year), the wishes of other family members, and religion and culture all can play a role in how a death anniversary is observed.

I was so incredibly fortunate to have a mother with whom I could always easily communicate. We let it all hang out, all the time. And it didn’t hurt that we were both naturally curious women and incessant talkers who loved sharing stories about our lives over dinner, on car rides, while we were watching TV or cooking together. I never really had to create an agenda to ask her about her life, and since she was young and healthy, never really thought that I would have to. I thought we had guaranteed time.

When someone we love has experienced a loss, we may struggle to communicate our support effectively. Often, my undergraduate students as well as attendees at workshops approach me with their stories of grieving loved ones, culminating with statements such as, “I didn’t know what to say to help,” or “I had such a hard time finding the right words.” It is unsurprising that many of us might feel stumped sometimes in verbalizing our support to grieving loved ones, because we ourselves may not have received helpful communication during our own experiences of loss. We might lean on “sympathy scripts,” such as “I’m so sorry for your loss” or “thoughts and prayers,” while recognizing, with a feeling of discomfort, how little support these scripts may provide to grievers.

When someone we care about has experienced a death loss, many of us will send a condolence card or letter, pick up the phone to extend direct sympathy, or – in ordinary times – stop by with flowers or food. However, it is more common than ever to learn about a loss via social media and therefore use these platform to express our initial condolences. Social media, including memorialization websites, can be invaluable in remaining in touch with grieving loved ones who are separated by us through distance; at the same time, using these platforms to express grief support can also feel like stepping carefully through a minefield.