By Beryl Kaminsky —
The young adult years — ranging from late teens to early thirties — span a period of life when most people are self-centered. Life is all about gaining independence, finding oneself, having a good time or starting relationships. Death is the farthest thing from a young person’s mind.
As a result, when young adults lose a loved one, they often suddenly feel “old” and out of sync with peers who have not experienced significant losses. The depths of grief create feelings of aloneness and isolation, and “having fun” seems empty. Friends may want to help but, not being able to understand, have no idea what to do or say. Too often they say or do nothing, which leads to even more isolation.
Loss can also throw youthful plans for the future up in the air or cause great confusion and uncertainty. The shock of loss shakes foundations that were taken for granted. While the rest of the world goes gaily on, for those in grief, life as they knew it has stopped.
Because of this, withdrawing is a common response of young people in grief. Unable to share their experience with peers, they do not share at all. This makes it even harder to process and heal what they are going through. Another common coping mechanism is attempting to escape through excessive drug or alcohol use, gaming, pornography, shopping, etc. Young adults may “decide” that they never want to make another friend as long as they live because it is just too incredibly painful to lose someone they care about.
If, as a young adult, you find yourself behaving or feeling in these ways, it is time to seek support. Contrary to the old adage, time does not heal all wounds. Grief waits. To get through any loss, it is important to find people who can support you emotionally and be present for you.
Hopefully, your immediate family can do this, but if that is not possible, consider turning to other members of your extended family, your community, clergy, or mental health professionals.? Beware of persons who say, “You just need to get over it,” or “I know just how you feel, my cat died last month”or “Don’t cry. Be strong.”
These people mean well but they are not the ones to help you at this time. Keep looking. Support is out there. Most young adults resist getting help, but it is a sign of strength, not weakness, to recognize your limits and to know when you need extra support. It is a sign of even greater courage to allow it in.
Remember, also, to care for yourself. Grieving is “healing,” and healing takes energy. It can be tiring. Trying to do even little things can leave you feeling like all your energy has been sapped. Honor your body’s physical and emotional needs for rest and healing time.
For some people, after the death of a loved one, insomnia may occur. Some in grief cannot fall asleep, cannot stay asleep or both. Young adults often tend to think they can get by on a few hours of sleep, but this is like saying you can get by on half the oxygen the body needs. Just because you are getting out of bed and getting to work or school does not mean you are functioning well. It is crucial to get the recommended amount of sleep.
Start by cutting back on caffeine after twelve noon, and creating a routine that allows you to go to bed and get up at the same time every day. If you cannot get to sleep after twenty minutes, get up and go do something else in another room until you are tired enough to sleep. Don’t remain in bed for hours wide-awake. Look on-line for more tips on what you can do to improve your sleep. You may be quite surprised to find how much better you cope with loss, as well as all of life’s other demands, when you get the proper amount of rest.
Finally, keeping a private blog or journal can also work wonders for young adults in grief. Studies have shown that writing about the anguish of loss helps put distance between people and their pain. Journaling also helps with insomnia. Endless ruminating about the same thoughts and questions is often what prevents sleep. Putting these on paper can clear the mind enough to allow a few hours of rest.
Losing a loved one is challenging at any age, but when it is your “first” grief experience as a young adult, it can be particularly difficult to navigate alone. It may feel like the pain will never stop, but you can find peace eventually.
While losing a loved one will change you, and may even make you feel older and more mature than your peers, it can also help you both to appreciate your youth and those still left in your life. If you are open to its lessons, grief can be a very effective teacher at every age. Questioning priorities, who you are, what is left, and what you want out of life is one of the “gifts” of grief. This is not only normal, the answers the heart finds on the road from grief, through loss, to healing often take life in directions never imagined.
2009 Beryl Kaminsky
Beryl Kaminsky is the author of “Mending the Broken Heart: After Your Child Dies,” an audiobook designed to prepare parents for their journey with grief no matter how old their child was. She is a psychotherapist based in Houston committed to helping people restore balance after their life changes. Having lost both sibling by the time she was a young adult, she uses her personal experience and professional training in assisting those who have lost loved ones.
In addition to her private therapy practice, Beryl provides training and support on a variety of mental health issues to hospitals, educational institutions, trade organizations, and small businesses.