Dr. Jill Harrington is a social worker, clinician and researcher at the Center for the Study of Traumatic Stress who specializes in grief after losing a young adult. “Some in the military and some in the civilian world,” explains Dr. Harrington, who chatted with Dr. Heidi Horsley during the Association for Death Education and Counseling conference in spring 2015. Losing a young adult is a unique situation, she explains. Losing a young adult means the survivors have lost the past, present and all the potential for the future. It’s unlike losing a young child, who has a limited past, or an elder.
Dr. Harrington knows such losses well, having lost the father of her child a few years ago. This year, her daughter is graduating from high school and it’s these types of events where you always assumed your parenting partner would be there. One of the best ways to handle future losses is to anticipate them and come up with strategies for coping. Death has a ripple effect, and years later there are other losses that can trigger the emotions from the primary, actual death.
Asking, “Am I a parent anymore?” “Do I have a sister anymore?” are common stumbling blocks when you lose a young adult. Defining your role, and the role of your passed loved one, can be part of the healing process. Many role changes come along with losing someone. You lose both a person and social relationships, and it’s important that survivors recognize that. Helping to understand future losses is critical in grief counseling.
Some tips for handling loss include just connecting and establishing a support network. This network can include family and friends, or a more structured support group with or without a counselor. “Grief has an address book,” Dr. Harrington says, and it’s common to end relationships with some people after a loss. Now it’s time to re-define your network, which can consist of the inclusion and exclusion of key people.