Dealing With Grief As A Young Adult
Dealing with grief is an inevitable part of life, and while it never gets easier, knowing a little about it can help support you through the process.
Grief and loss are universal human experiences. Your first significant loss is the most confronting and difficult, and could happen in early adulthood. There are a lot of major life changes that happen during this period – leaving home, entering the workforce and actually having to do your taxes. Some of these changes involve loss; if you move across the country, lose a job, or when someone you love passes away.
I lost my best friend when I was 18, living at the other end of the country from my family, and with absolutely no idea how to cope. The year I moved countries, both my grandmothers died. It was different every time, and it was difficult every time.
Through my own personal experiences, trial and error, and chats with Dr Stephen Carbone, beyondblue’s Policy, Research and Evaluation Leader, here are some tips to help you navigate the complex maze that is loss and grief.
#1 All losses are different
Grief is the natural response to loss. It is a normal part of life. Despite the shock of your first loss, being a little familiar with what to expect and the different types of loss can help navigate the difficult times in the future – “forewarned is forearmed,” Dr Carbone says.
Different to loss associated with death, young adults can experience developmental loss as we pass through life transitions – like a toddler leaving mum for a babysitter for the first time; when you leave home to move overseas; or leave your family because of travel or marriage – but your life stage doesn’t prevent (or predict) loss or grief. As Dr Carbone says, “shit happens at any age and stage.”
It’s important to know that grief is an entirely different beast to depression, despite sharing similar qualities. Depression can be triggered by loss (like grief), but a grieving person will generally function while rebuilding their life, can experience brief periods of pleasure and maintain connections to others – elements that aren’t as common with sufferers of clinical depression.
#2 Grief is extremely personal
You do you. Everyone grieves differently; some people cry a lot, some people don’t cry for years, a lot of people turn to religion or spirituality. I compulsively make tea, constantly, and for everyone around me.
Dr Carbone says there is “no right way to grieve” – that it depends on age, stage, culture and context of the loss. There’s no pressure to wear black, to mourn in any particular way, and so you should feel free to experience your loss in a way that works for you.
Maybe you need to cry a lot; maybe you feel the impulse to record their memory so start writing about them and their life; maybe you want to scream into a pillow until your voice is hoarse; or engage in a doughnut-eating marathon. Whatever it is, do it. That’s the thing about emotions; bottle them up and they don’t go away, they’ll just seep out during an awkward or completely inappropriate time instead (like laughing hysterically in a lift full of people).
#3 Structure is your friend
When you feel empty, hollow, and unsure how to function, being told you have to be somewhere at a particular time is a life raft of stability. After my best friend died when I was in second year of university, I still had to turn up to classes. I would be up the back; some days I would sit there and cry, some days I would leave part-way through. The structure meant I left the house – I kept functioning even when I felt like I couldn’t.
Dr Carbone agrees, saying it “helps to have something that distracts you” – it’s not being in denial, but taking time out from an intense situation; it gives you time to clear your head. Having a daily routine is a tip Dr Carbone feels strongly as key to support you through experiencing grief.
#4 Use your support network
Dr Carbone also advocates for having and using your support network. Your friends and family will be here for you in this time – don’t be afraid to share, talk, and have your feelings acknowledged. Some of your friends might have experienced loss already, and can empathise.
To ensure you get effective support, communicate clearly to people what it is you need – do you need people to cook for you? Do you need someone to talk to about the person you’ve lost? Do you need to go for an hour long walk and just not think about what’s going on? Let your support network know. If they haven’t experienced significant loss already, they will have no idea how you’re feeling.
#5 This doesn’t go away
People will tell you it gets better. But they’re wrong. It doesn’t get better, but it does change. The loss of someone you love will always be there: it’s part of you now. You don’t need to fear it. This experience is helping form another aspect of who you are.
#6 It’s okay to be angry
The hardest thing to explain about losing someone is how furious I was. It’s even harder when you don’t have anything to be angry at. Death isn’t some skeleton in a robe with a scythe, and being angry at an abstract idea is really, really difficult.
The classically described stages of grief (denial, anger, bargaining, sadness and acceptance) aren’t a blueprint to grieving, but Dr Carbone says, “at a thematic level, the stages of grief are often expected” – although it’s not every stage in that exact order.
There is shock, anger, sadness and pining, and eventually you integrate the long-term effects of loss near seamlessly into daily life. “Overall, there tends to be a trajectory in grief,” Dr Carbone notes.
#7 Acceptance is integration
Acceptance, typically known as the final stage of grieving, isn’t forgetting or ‘moving on’, but rather integrating the loss and associated emotions into your daily life.
When you find it difficult to manage this, it is called “complicated grief” – the grief gets disrupted in some way and you continue to grieve after a long period of bereavement. Sometimes it’s hard to let go, especially if you’re dealing with a death that was unexpected, the person was young, or they were particularly close.
If you are struggling with grief, loss or depression, we urge you to visit beyondblue, who offer immediate support.
Sophia Frentz is a PhD student in genetics, a total feminist and chronic overachiever. She’s passionate about pretty much everything; mental health awareness, inequality, science, vegan cheese, and regularly wishes for a time-turner. Find her on twitter @SophiaFrentz.