How to Help a Young Adult With Loss of a Parent

By Emily McManus —

My father died nearly six years ago of esophageal cancer, when I was 18 and in my first year of college.   Looking back on that time, I feel as though it happened both yesterday and decades ago.   Death acts as a supernova to memories; seconds stand crystal clear illumined while whole weeks are a blur.   I’m so grateful that I am blessed with my mom and sister in my life.   While we have all traveled our own individual grief journeys, I think that we have been invaluable fellow travelers, meeting on the road and warning about rocky passages ahead or sharing in warmth.   Honoring the individuality of each of our relationships to my dad has allowed us to share in the commonalities of losing someone each of us loved dearly.

Children and teenagers deal with their grief and emotions differently than adults.   This may seem odiously obvious when thinking of how teens confront contemporary issues – obsessing over objects of affection, hysteria over clothes, the desire to listen to the same song ten million times on family car trips – but is easy to forget when experiencing a child’s reaction to the death of a parent.   Seemingly dismissive or facetious attitudes often conceal a deep well of emotion.

I know that during the time my father was ill and after he died, I compartmentalized my feelings a great deal as a coping strategy. A teenager’s head and heart are not always connected, and although I received straight A’s that first semester in college, I found it nearly impossible to cry in front of people.   If I hadn’t possessed a cool exterior, it would have been impossible to carry on, to say goodbye to my Daddy after a weekend visit from college without ignoring the possibility this would be the last time I saw him. Perhaps because I seemed “fine” on the surface, extended family members were less inclined to offer the emotional support I so desperately needed, but didn’t know how to ask for.

An agreement to honor individual feelings is pivotal to weathering this difficult time.   Family members cannot judge each other on who seems to be the saddest.   Grief isn’t a contest, the only prize on the other side of the fog is survival, and any “new normal” will never exist if failure to thrive proves who loves the deceased the most.   Offer support to bereaved family members as if they were actually coping far less well than they seem to be, because in private they probably are worse than you can imagine.

For those supporting grieving children, I think that the worst thing a surviving parent can do is invoke the deceased parent’s name to control the child.   “If your mother was alive…” or “Your father would never allow…”   Besides being manipulative, these words alter the relationship of the child with the parent who is gone, and can’t speak for him or herself.

Children are already missing one parent at every moment, if a parent can’t be present for every occasion, joyous and miserable, why only bring the memory into already fretful conversations?   However on the other side of the coin, I’m always appreciative when people bring up my father in a positive way.   At my younger sister’s college graduation I was touched when family members said how proud my dad would have been of her, because it affirms all of the wonderful ways he was a tremendous gift and influence on our lives, rather than solely focusing on his absence.

I’ve often heard that after a huge loss, those grieving should try to not make any big decisions or changes in their lives for at least a year.   This is wonderful advice for adults, to not sell the house or run off to Vegas, but virtually impossible for teens or young adults.   In the year following my father’s death I moved twice, stopped speaking to virtually all of my long-time best friends, and decided to transfer to a college across the country.   While many of these changes were a natural part of becoming an adult, I wish that I had known then how much I was not really myself during that period.

People grieving should be given small business cards to act as an in-person answering machine, reading “I’m sorry, I’m not here right now, please come back in a year and I’ll try to be more pleasant,” more to remind oneself than to make excuses to other people.   As normal as melodrama in relationships is to younger people, it is beyond even the most well-meaning friends’ comprehension the deep, enduring sadness that is grieving.   We all know through receiving insensitive comments from the most mature adults that no one really understands until he or she has experienced a loss, but it would be tremendously helpful for a teacher, coach, or close family friend to explain to friends and classmates of a grieving child what has happened, and what a gift time and patience are to the bereaved.

Most importantly, remind the grieving child to be patient with him or herself, allow time to remember, and time to continue growing following a staggering loss.   “Bereaved” originally meant “to be deprived,” and while we who have experienced a loss will always be deprived of our loved one, eventually the sense of being deprived of oneself will depart if we can first be compassionate with ourselves.

© 2008 Emily McManus

Emily McManus

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Emily McManus’ father died of esophageal cancer when she was 18 years old. Emily earned her undergraduate degree from New York University. She has written and published original fiction and non-fiction, and has edited numerous articles, journals and books. While in college, she was an intern at McSweeney’s, and is currently attending graduate school.

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  • Catherine says:

    I lost my dad nine months ago, and want to thank Emily for her article through which I found some words that express what I have felt but been unable until now to recognise.

    Particularly I appreciated her statement “offer support to bereaved family members as if they were actually coping far less well than they seem to be, because in private they probably are worse than you can imagine”. I wish everybody who came in contact with a bereaved person had to read this line.

    There is such great pressure to seem as if you are strong and coping fine when your whole world has collapsed, and you have lost all your compass points, and the feeling that others seem not to understand the enormity of this loss has been one of the most painful parts of this.

    I also found her comments about withdrawal from friends so true, I have lost contact with friends who have been unable to support me and who now I feel I have nothing in common with. I resent their innocence and their smug optimism in their control over their own life, not knowing how cocooned they in fact are. Perhaps I should be using emily’s business card, as on one level I know how much I am not myself at this time. But I am not sure if the myself I thought I had still exists anyway.

    Also her comments about deprivation – that is what this feels like nine months on. Longing and sadness too, but mainly the emptiness of conversations not there, support not given by my dad who I loved so much. With my mother preoccupied with her own grieving, it is almost too, that I lost both parents at once. People seem so much more inclined to see the needs of the widow than the children, or perhaps they presume she is looking after the children. This is an unsafe assumption to make when she may have no emotional resources left over from her own grief.

  • hm says:

    reading emilys words, i feel as though i wrote it. now in second year, i lost my dad to cancer 11 months ago. even then, i live each day as though i lost him just yesterday. an extremely loving dad, his absence has made me at times think that the whole thing never happened. for a very long time i used to convince myself the same, imagining that he would be out or probably asleep upstairs. 6 yrs or 9 months is simply not enough time to deal with a dads absence.only people who have lost their dad will understand that.

  • Rania Abdulnour says:

    I am glad I wondered on this site today. I am deeply sad and deeply greiving the loss of my amazing father. He passed away on 9/15/2012. I am 38 years old and feel as if I am 10 and my daddy lost me. I am terrified of fallen in a deep depression over this and have started to pray heavily. My father was “daddy” to 5 beautiful girls\women. We each adored him and put him on a pedastol all of our lives. He has had many struggles but has never ever NOT been there for us…except now. I can’t seem to get out of this denial phase. My mother was\is married to him for 41 years and she is suffering as well, but her faith is helping her cope. He passed away from heart failure after a long long road. We were advised that he would be okay and home…than caught an infection and died two days later. Your stories have helped me today at least get through my work day as until I read them, I was feeling very weak, sick and stomach pains… now I know, that is my body reacting to this shock. Thank you for your stories and I will pray for your daddys.
    Rania

  • J says:

    I am 21 years old now, I lost my dad last year in September. It’s been 1 year and 3 months. I think it’s almost getting easier to swallow down this lump I’m my throat. We were very close, I have 3 other siblings 2 of which are very close to my mom and me including my brother whom were very attached to my dad. His death wasn’t sudden though his accident was, so we seen him decline and was expecting the worst. No words can describe how completely sad I get from time to time. Little things set it off, like looking at my brothers certain angles they look like him, or seeing my mom touch the box his remains he’s in. Or hearing the ramones on the radio. Smells and places and songs. I miss him so much. I just want it to hurt less. I want us all to hurt less.

  • ADARSH says:

    I have lost my mom nearly 2 months back and it is hurting even more everyday. My dad passed away 9 years ago so I am all alone at home. No one from aunts decided to stay with me even for a few days. I have been alone from Day 1. I wish I had also died when my mom passed away. Many people just avoid talking to me. Some of my Aunts are also avoiding me and others have started ignoring me already. I ask for nothing but company. I wish my mom was here so I would be not so down. It is very hard to not get depressed. I was so well protected by mom when dad passed away that now I do not know what to do. My Mom was my Best Friend as all my friends broke away from me over the years. I am alone without a family and no friends in real to speak of. Believe me it is much harder than it looks. My mom had taught me to be a tough boy so I will be and she had told me there is no real easy way out of any problems in life. I hope wheoever reads this will learn to be hard and try to survive the ordeal.

  • Breanna says:

    My father died suddenly on January 28,2013 and I’m having a really hard time with it. I’m 22 going on 23 and I feel like my worlds crashing in on me. day after my father passed away I had to move out of the home I grew up in less than a month. I’m just wondering if you can give me some advise on how to deal and cope with him being gone. thank you so much for your time