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.
It was then I needed to dive in and understand why grieving young adults do not receive the same attention as other bereaved populations. With so many bereavement care professionals serving children, adolescents, and adults, why is this particular age group so often missed? Was it because of their resistance or our inability to help them?
When a child or adolescent is grieving, a guardian often seeks bereavement care for them. The guardian finds the best care option and is responsible for scheduling attendance to where the care is provided. Bereavement care, typically referred to as grief support, may be provided by a licensed mental health care professional.
Others may seek peer support rather than counseling. This support is usually offered by bereavement care professionals working at a bereavement care center, hospital, funeral home, or place of worship, to name a few, offering individual or facilitated group models. All these options are typically offered at regularly scheduled times.
An adult, usually around the age of 30, seeks similar care options for themselves. They can do so because they are generally settled into a lifestyle that offers a regular schedule. They can often find the time and are willing to commit to their personal well-being.
However, neither of these applies to young adults. No one takes them by their hand, nor do they have a scheduled lifestyle where they can commit time, and often awareness of such care isn't even on their radar.
Then I took a look at the numbers of this grieving population. Research confirms the magnitude: one in every three college students between 18 and 25 has grieved a death loss within the last 12 months. It is fair to assume that this extends to the entire population of 18 to 25-year-olds. That's about 10 million grieving young adults nationally. If we expand this to include all young adults, 18-30, we now look at more than 13 million.
Research also confirms that bereaved young adults are at a disadvantage to their non-grieving peers. Mental acuity, physical strength, and endurance are compromised. For a young adult in college, this is evident in lower test and GPA scores. For the worker, missed deadlines or lack of detail to the quality of work are displayed. Since young adults are just beginning to lay the foundation for their future, they struggle to maintain their focus on learning and succeeding.
For bereaved young adults, sometimes just "showing up" is an effort. With a focus on academics or the start of a career, young adults pay little attention to the idea of bereavement care, often themselves unaware of their need for support. Yet, unsupported grief may change the trajectory of their life's path.
So why are they not being served?
One of the reasons a young adult often goes unsupported, I suspect, is because society tends to consider an 18 or 19-year-old to be an adult and, therefore, able to make the best self-care and emotional-care decisions for themselves. However, developmentally, the young adult is not yet considered an adult until about the age of 25. Therefore, quite the opposite is often true.
Society presumes that a young adult, beginning their independence, will "move on." Therefore, little attention is focused on their bereavement care needs.
In addition, the word "support" is often perceived as taboo. So, a young adult may shy away from the support they need.
Those who have not had a significant person in their life die may have a false presumption that one "gets over it" and "time heals." So, the need for bereavement care is often dismissed. This dismissal leaves grieving individuals unsupported and sometimes ashamed that they are still suffering because they have not "gotten over it" or "moved on." This silence often leads to isolation and loneliness.
If a young adult does seek support, traditional care by a licensed mental health care professional is often too expensive for a young adult's budget. If a young adult seeks help while on campus, they are often left on a waitlist, months out for that help they seek. A young adult's schedule is also consistently inconsistent, making it difficult to commit to traditional bereavement care models of attending a group at a particular time, every other week, or having regularly scheduled appointments.
For those who have successfully served the needs of grieving young adults, we hear a common theme. Young adults want to be connected to others who are grieving a similar death loss. Young adults want to be heard and feel understood by their grieving peers because they, too, are bereaved and understand.
We've also learned that the traditional grief support models aren't attractive to young adults for various reasons, many stated above. They want to be proactive and consciously honor their person.
So how do we foster a healthy post bereavement growth for young adults?
We know that continuing bonds are an essential component of a healthy post bereavement growth. Therefore, a young adult may choose to honor their person by way of charity. If a parent died from cancer, perhaps participating in a walk for cancer may be a good option. If a friend died by suicide, training and responding to crisis calls with the Suicide Prevention Hotline, when ready to do so, may be a good fit. If a loved one was an avid reader, a grieving family member or friend may want to hold a book drive and donate the books to a local school or library.
Young adults want to be active, so group outings may be a great option, even outings that don't follow traditional grief support models, such as a pot-luck picnic featuring the loved one's favorite foods, or a hike, with participants paying tribute with a moment of silence. Providing space in non-traditional ways often presents extraordinary growth and healing. There are so many ways they can continue that bond. They might need a little help, figuring out how to do so.
These ideas may not be for everyone, yet most young adults still yearn for connections. For some, a digital community, available through an app, is perfect for connecting them with others of similar age and similar death loss. These communities give grieving young adults the opportunity to connect with other grieving young adults, and they can do so digitally, 24/7.
Some bereavement care centers and professionals offer a group model virtually, sometimes known as facilitated virtual conversations. In doing so, the stigma of a support group is somewhat dismissed. The process of hearing from others in a similar emotional place relieves the sense of isolation, especially during isolating times. It is also more likely that a young adult can make the time for this commitment of care if they choose to do so.
Regardless of care choice, grief doesn't have to be lonely anymore. Bereavement care is crucial to this very vulnerable group of young adults. Professionals should inspire creativity and ways young adults can honor and remember their person. It is up to us to foster ways for them to connect with others who understand. Let's add to these ideas. What ways have you found engaging in the efforts to support grieving young adults?