Underserved: Grief Support and Young Adults

A child spends all their time wishing to “be a grown up,” only to get there and realize “adulting” is hard. Oh, if we could only be kids again!

At times, the responsibilities, burdens, and experiences of young adulthood just feel too heavy. Enter grief.

Grief, the ultimate monkey wrench, thrown into the machine of our lives, changing us forever. For the young adult, whether you define that group as ages 18-25, 20-29, or 18-40, grief presents unique challenges.

For many in this age group, this is their first experience with grief. The feelings are unfamiliar and overwhelming.

The stressors this population faces, particularly around financial stability, academic achievement, and changes to the social support system, can heighten the challenges of effective coping after a loss.

Couple these challenges with the reality that most grief support programs do not reach this age group, and you have an equation for a population at risk.

Although research regarding young adult grief is limited, studies on the topic reveal an increased risk of depression in bereaved young adults. During the college years, the stress of classes and work on top of grief presents psychological and academic risks. According to research on this topic, grief during the college years can lead to a decrease in academic performance and overall GPA during the semester of loss (1).

In addition to depression, bereaved young adults are more likely to show symptoms of separation anxiety, conduct disorder, substance abuse and poverty, particularly for those who have lost a parent at a young age (2).

Physical and psychiatric symptoms, such as depression, are likely for bereaved young adults after the loss of a close friend or sibling. Sibling loss in particular presents a higher likelihood of complicated grief in young adults. (3)

After a traumatic loss, young adults are over 5 times more likely to experience suicidal ideation (4).

And in the cases of bereavement by suicide, the loss increases the potential for attempting suicide in young adults (5).

Overall, survivors of suicide, whether young adults or not, are at significantly higher risks of complicated grief, and the development of physical and/or mental health problems in the future (6).

Certainly, this research is alarming. Wild Grief wants to support this underserved, at-risk population. For the first time, we are offering a young adult day hike on August 25. This hike is for ages 19-29. Our monthly Hike Habit grief walks and quarterly day hikes are open to all ages, and our teen trips serve ages 13-19.

If you are a grieving young adult between ages 19-29, register now to join us on the trail on August 25.

In the meantime, below are Wild Grief’s top 5 tips for your healing journey. While these points are written specifically with young adults in mind, we expect teen and adult grievers may find this material relevant, too.

5). You are NOT a freak
Realize feeling lonely, isolated, and misunderstood is NORMAL. Chances are your friends can’t relate. (“I know exactly how you feel. When my gerbil died…”) Maybe your friendships have suffered during this process. Instead of spending your precious energy trying to help your friends cope with their uncomfortable feelings around your grief, you find it easier to isolate yourself. Hear us: YOU ARE NOT THE PROBLEM. This grief might have you feeling like a four-leaf clover right now. Instead of feeling like a freak in the meadow of three-leaf clovers, find fellow four-leaf friends! When you’re feeling lonely, it may be helpful to hear stories of similar experiences. Whether you read grief stories online, or attend a local support group, knowing others have been through this can feel like a major revelation to remind you there is hope. Be aware that many young adults find social media, such as facebook, to be unhelpful in offering the support that they need. Honor your feelings of needing to be alone to process this grief, and be willing to recognize when you need to seek professional help.

4). Give back to yourself
As you’re experiencing, grief takes a ton of energy. It may take some experimenting to find what gives you energy during the grieving process. Your go-to fun activities before the loss may not be as effective now, especially if these things remind you of the person who died. When you’re grieving, all you feel like doing most days is eating junk food (or nothing at all) and binge watching Netflix. But remember: Grief presents added stress on the body and mind. Your body might be young, and you might think you’re invincible, but right now you need extra self-care. Anything you can do to nurture your body and mind will greatly help you process this grief. Spending time in nature, whether at a neighborhood park or in the wilderness, can offer much needed space for the body and mind to relax. Any activity that zaps your mind back into the present, from dinner with friends to a solo dance party in your living room, can offer a hiatus from grief’s emotional roller coaster.

3) Play your grief card
We’re not talking about taking advantage of the sympathy around you. We are talking about acknowledging this grief is probably the hardest thing in life you’ve faced yet, and realizing this is the time to ask for help. When we’re grieving, each daily task - from laundry and dishes to emails and bills - can feel like monumental challenges. And maybe we’re sacrificing our own needs to support other grievers in our family. This is the time to lean into the support of others. There is no shame in asking for help, or delegating that project to someone else. After playing your grief card, relish the bit of time, space, and energy you’ve received. You might take a deep breath wherever you are, or go outside into the fresh air, and just breathe. Inhale, exhale.

2) Recognize not all emotions are helpful
Grief shows up when and where it wants. You’ll be going along, feeling almost like a normal human being again, then WHAM. The wave hits, and suddenly you’re riding the woulda-shoulda-coulda coaster in this dysfunctional circus of emotions called grief. Human nature leads every grieving person toward guilt and regret at some point. It may be time to take the power away from negative emotions. “Sorry, guilt. Sorry, regret. You’re not helping me.”

1) Be gentle and kind with yourself
They say “what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.” But really, even for the most resilient of people, what doesn’t kill you can make you sick, exhausted, and on the verge of a physical or mental health breakdown. Maybe you grew up in a family where you were expected to “be tough,” not cry, and “suck it up.” Unfortunately, this toughest-kid-on-the-block attitude doesn’t make room for the difficult truth: YOU ARE GRIEVING. Right now, you need space, you need time, you need a break. While we are biased, Wild Grief believes this healing space is most easily accessed in nature, amidst the peaceful presence of all that is wild.

We invite you to join us on the trail to experience the restorative power of nature that we, and author Wendell Berry, have felt.

By Wendell Berry

When despair for the world grows in me
and I wake in the night at the least sound
in fear of what my life and my children’s lives may be,
I go and lie down where the wood drake
rests in his beauty on the water, and the great heron feeds.
I come into the peace of wild things
who do not tax their lives with forethought
of grief.
I come into the presence of still water.
And I feel above me the day-blind stars
waiting with their light. For a time
I rest in the grace of the world, and am free.

1) Educational Attainment and Persistence of Bereaved College Students, Servaty-Seib, 2006.
2) Psychiatric Symptoms in Bereaved Versus Nonbereaved Youth and Young Adults: A Longitudinal Epidemiological Study, Kapalow, 2010.
3) Complicated Grief and Bereavement in Young Adults Following Close Friend and Sibling Loss, Mash, 2013.
4) Influence of Traumatic Grief on Suicidal Ideation Among Young Adults, Prigerson, 1999.
5) Bereavement by Suicide as a Risk Factor for Suicide Attempt, Pitman, 2016.
6) Complicated Grief in Survivors of Suicide, Mitchell, 2004.

Breanna Trygg