When Young Adults Grieve
As much as I -- like everyone else, apparently -- have been saddened by the sudden death of political commentator Tim Russert, I have been moved by the great grace and equanimity with which his only child, 22-year-old Luke Russert, has handled his enormous loss.
I lost my own father too early, too, when he was just 64 (six years older than Russert; he, too, died from a heart attack). But I was 31, married, and otherwise well established in life. I wonder what it must be like to lose your dad when you're 22, when you've just finished college and started a career and you're for all intents and purposes a full-fledged adult -- except that you still, in many ways, think of yourself as your parents' kid.
There are plenty of counseling services and guidebooks aimed at helping young children cope with the death of a parent. And there has been a lot of buzz in recent years about how to manage becoming a middle-aged "adult orphan" when your aged parents die. But there's not a lot of advice and support out there for kids in Luke Russert's position.
Jana DeCristofaro, MSW, coordinator of children's grief services at the Dougy Center for Grieving Children & Families in Portland, Oregon, confirms that observation. In fact, that dearth of support for bereaved young adults spurred the Dougy Center to start a bereavement support group for 19- to 30-year-olds five years ago.
DeCristofaro says that young adults basically need the same things younger kids need to help them through their grief: "a safe, nonjudgmental, nonevaluative place to come together with peers who are dealing with similar life circumstances as well as with death," as she puts it.
But young adults often do differ in some key ways from those in other age groups when reacting to the death of a parent, DeCristofaro explains:
- For many, this is the first time they've had to think about finances and the "bureaucracy of death" in a serious way, particularly if both parents have died.
- While teens who lose a parent may think ahead and wonder who will be present at their graduation or when they get married, many young adults are in the midst of getting married or having children. The lack of a parent at such times "is very present for them."
- For those whose relationship with their parent had been acrimonious, young adulthood is often a time to start reconnecting with that parent, building an adult relationship and letting go of baggage. If death interrupts that process, the young adult child may feel the sting of lost opportunity.
- Many young adults who lose a parent have strong concerns about younger siblings and their ability to deal with their loss.
As for Luke Russert's amazing, positive, upbeat, and loving manner in speaking about his father's death, DeCristofaro suggests that might not actually be all that rare among people his age. "Young adults are unique," she notes. "They have the emotional intensity of a teenager but an adult capacity to express themselves."
The Dougy Center trains other grief-support centers across the nation in running programs like the one in Portland; it also offers this tool for searching for a grief-support center near you.
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