It is (finally) time for another installment of What’s Your Question, thanks to a question from new WYG reader, Lauren. Lauren sent us the email below just the other day:
I just stumbled upon your website and podcasts—so firstly, thank you! I was researching grief triggers and coping with them when I found the podcast and have been exploring the site since then.
My question is more of how can grieving young adults build a support system?
I ask because of my backstory and my age. I’m 26 and have lost many people in my life at this point. As young as seven years old and as recent as within the last six months. Some losses have affected me more the others–namely five people (significant losses) from when I was in high school to almost two years ago. For four of the five losses, I have wonderful support systems because (in part) they were relatable (cousin, grandfather, church member, pastor).
For the other one, it’s really hard to find someone around my age to be a part of that support system because many young adults hadn’t lost their best friend/soulmate (not romantic–but spiritually connected) when they were 20 (he had a heart condition). I have a nephew born on the anniversary of his death and people close to me that share his birthday; making things more manageable and positive for those dates. However, I find it hard to relate to people my age on some level because many of them still have their best friends (often times a trigger) and/or are finding their soulmates–and I don’t anymore. I do share with people and often times they sympathize/offer condolences; but don’t truly understand. I have a newer friend that does listen and offers more support than I’ve had in years, but he still doesn’t truly understand. The only people I’ve found who actually understand are people who are seniors/farther along in age.
I’ve been to therapy and I do a lot with my faith (including spiritual direction), but I still constantly look for better ways to manage triggers (now that I’m more at a place of accepting them as being my normal) and to not feel so isolated by my age. I have experienced a different kind of healing as of late which is very nice and welcomed–especially having experienced grief of significant losses for almost half of my life. It’s new territory and that’s why I ask the question of building a support system of my peers. I’ve been able to be that support for someone else, I just wonder how to find that kind of support for myself.
I’m not looking to replace my best friend. That relationship can’t be replaced and I wouldn’t want it to be. I recognize that just as much as I recognize that I still need support in my life.
Thanks for reading all of this. I know it’s a bit long, but it’s hard to know the context of the question without a bit of the history behind it.
Disclaimer: Today we want to focus specifically on support systems when you are younger and grieving. That said, don’t close your browser just because you remember using payphones and the Dewey Decimal System. Some of this stuff may be helpful at any age.
Ok, back to Lauren’s question. Let’s talk about friends when you’re young. Do you want the good news or the bad news first?
I always like getting the bad news out of the way.
The bad stuff about support systems when you’re young.
1. There is a good chance your friends haven’t been through something similar. Though this certainly isn’t always the case, the reality is that when we are young we are less likely to have lost people who are close to us. So, when you do lose someone as a young person it is pretty likely your friends may not have been through the same thing.
2. Your friends are less likely to know how to support someone grieving. In addition to not having lost someone themselves, there is a fair chance you are the first grieving friend your friend has ever had. They may be feeling like they have no idea what to say or do to support you. This isn’t their fault, they don’t teach us this stuff in school!
3. Your friends can be a bit self-focused. This isn’t an insult and it isn’t a rule, but when we are teens and 20-somethings we can be pretty darned focused on ourselves and what is going on in our own lives – girlfriends, boyfriends, dances, colleges, first jobs, first apartments, figuring out the meaning of life, etc. It can sometimes be hard for people to shift that focus to provide the support you need when you are grieving.
(check out more hilarious Sarah Andersen comics at sarahcanderson.com)
4. They don’t understand grief. Let’s be honest, this can be true for friends of any age, but it may be especially true for friends when you are younger. They may assume you will be “back to normal” after a few months, they may assume your grief will look a certain way and be surprised if it doesn’t, etc. They want to understand, they want to help, but they just don’t get it. At. All.
5. Your priorities change. Many times your friends are your friends because you have similar interests, experiences, perspectives and beliefs. One thing that can happen with grief (though it doesn’t always, of course) is your priorities or beliefs change. The things that seemed so important before no longer feel important. Your interests or belief system shift. Your friends may have a hard time understanding these shifts and staying connected. For more on this, check out our post on changing priorities and grief.
The good stuff about support systems when you’re young
1. Friends are incredibly important. It isn’t to say that friends aren’t always important, but we know as teenagers our friends become extremely important and have a significant impact on how we grow, adjust and cope. This importance of peers often carries into our twenties, before we establish long-term romantic relationships or have children of our own. So the good news is, as a young griever, you may already have friends who you talk to daily, who know you extremely well and who have helped you through some dark days in the past.
2. They have time. Once you hit your 30s and 40s many friends are juggling spouses, children, careers and many other stressors of their own families. This can cause grievers to feel their friends just don’t have any free time at all, and certainly don’t want to burden them when they do have time Though as teens and 20-somethings we undoubtedly have busy schedules and stressors, we often have more time for friends in general. This time can make it a little easier to provide support.
3. People are looking for new friends. It may not feel like it when finding new friends isn’t coming easily, but the truth is that many 20-somethings are eager to make friends and often feel isolated. In college you are surrounded by people your age with endless options of clubs, sports, classes and activities where you can connect. The post-college world can be a shock without a built-in friend group, so there are many people looking to connect. Now, you still need to find those people, which isn’t always easy (especially when you are grieving) but looking for book clubs, sports, young adult professional groups, running clubs, etc is a place to start. There are plenty of articles online about meeting friends in general in your twenties (like this one) so check them out and test out some ideas.
So, back to Lauren’s initial questions.
What can you do as a young griever?
Assess your support system
The reality is we aren’t always good at using our support system in the right way. We go to the wrong person at the wrong time, or we keep going back to people who are not meeting our needs rather than really critically looking at who can best meet our needs. Learn to use your support system more effectively. How, you might ask? Fear not, we have a post with detailed ideas on how to do just that and a podcast on using your support system effectively.
This can be tough, because talking about your loss can be tough . . . and awkward . . . and weird to work into conversation. For those very reasons many people carry their losses in silence. But if we all walk around silently grieving our personal losses, we only exacerbate our collective feelings of isolation. When we start to open up about our losses, often times we learn that others have been through similar losses and we connect with people we never would have expected. I read recently that 1 in 7 Americans loses a parent before age 20. 1 in 7!! That means I probably knew a lot of people who had gone through what I had gone through, but by keeping quiet about our losses we were never connecting with one another. Or maybe they don’t have a loss, but once you open up you learn your friend is an amazing listener or great support. This involves taking a risk, being open and being vulnerable, but the reward is huge when you do connect. Read more on this in our post on Making New Friends After Big Losses.
Don’t let past bad experiences taint future experiences
When you start to share and speak up about pain and loss, it isn’t always going to go well. We would be lying if we said it would. But don’t let past bad experiences keep you from trying and trusting again. Easier said than done, and there is a whole post we could probably write on this, but for now I will just say it is important to remember that one person failing you when you needed support does not mean that everyone will. Be thoughtful with who you open up to, but don’t let the fear of repeating the past prevent you from forming new relationships in the present.
Tell your friends what you need
Sometimes we assume that others know what we need or that they will figure it out. As mentioned above, this may be the first time your friend has supported someone grieving and they may have never been through a loss themselves. That makes it especially important that you speak up and let them know what you need. If you want to talk without that person judging or giving advice, tell them that. If you aren’t ready to be social, but would really love some company sitting on the couch watching TV, tell them. If you aren’t always great about calling or texting back, but appreciate friends checking in with you, let them know that you appreciate it even if you don’t always reply. You get the idea.
Help your friends understand grief
This can be tough, because you may not even understand grief! And even if you do, you may not be in a position to be teaching other people about it. But you can point them to some resources. Chances are your good friends want to help you and they want to understand more. They just may not know where to start. If you are looking for some things to get your friends started you can recommend this post on Supporting a Friend After a Death, this post on Grief Myths that Just Need to Stop and this post of 64 Things I Wish Someone Had Told Me About Grief. If your friend has $7 to spare, they can also get our Guide to Supporting a Griever (without sticking your foot in your mouth)
Sometimes we fixate on the idea that grief support has to come from someone who has had a similar loss to our own, someone in our age range or someone who is similar to us in spiritual beliefs, life experiences, etc. Over years supporting grievers and from my own experiences, one thing that is important to remember is that sometimes you find grief support and grief friends where you least expect them. You may be a grieving 20-something, but that doesn’t mean another grieving 20-something is your only possible source of support. Be open to this and remember, not every friend will be able to provide support in every situation. And that’s okay!
People say stupid things when you are grieving. Like, really stupid things. Oh, and they do stupid things. Often well-intentioned things, but still stupid. It can be easy to then think they are stupid, or insensitive, or bad friends. Chances are they are just floundering because they don’t know the right thing to say or do. Cut them some slack, have a conversation about what they said or did that hurt you, and help them know how to better support you going forward. Now, if they keep doing or saying the wrong thing, then you may need to get some space from them. But give them a chance before you jump to that conclusion.
Meeting other young grievers
Though it can feel like there are no groups or resources for young people, they are out there. Here are just a few ideas of places you may find some other grievers in your age bracket.
Start by searching Google for “young adult grief group” and the name of your city or state. If you can’t find any specific young adult groups, call your local hospice or grief center and talk about your situation and age. Many places try to place people in groups based on age and other circumstances of the loss that they feel may connect well together.
We have written about AMF in the past, but in case you aren’t familiar they are a group that meets on college campuses for students who are grieving. This is a great way to connect with other college students who are grieving. You can read more about AMF here. If you don’t have an AMF chapter on your campus, don’t worry – there is info on the AMF website about how to start your own chapter!
Support groups are not for everyone. Eleanor and I will be the first to admit that as young grievers neither of us had any interest in joining a support group. Some of our reasons were valid, others not so much. But regardless, there are less formal options to connect with other grievers. The Dinner Party is a network of ‘hosts’ across the country who throw dinner parties, allowing mostly 20 and 30-something grievers to connect with other grievers over yummy potluck dinners. Started by 5 young grievers who didn’t find support in traditional places, the dinner parties worked for them and slowly the party grew and explaned. Now it is happening in cities across the country. Check out a dinner party in your area. Like AMF, if there is no party happening in your city you can sign up as a host and get a dinner party started!
For those looking for some other online options beyond WYG, you may want to check out Too Damn Young. This is a website that is specifically designed by and intended for teen, college and 20-something grievers. We speak from experience when we say that we have met some amazing grief friends online, so don’t discount the value of cyber support! We get it that we aren’t the same as the friends you have IRL, but we like to think we do offer a bit to supplement the real-life support!
Wow, before we hit 3,000 words I am going to wrap this post up. But I am sure I have missed a zillion amazing ideas, suggestions and resources, so leave a comment with your experience!