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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.

By Jennifer LaRue Huget  |  June 23, 2008; 7:00 AM ET
Categories:  Family Health  
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This sentence shows why blogs should be edited:

"If death interrupts that process, the young adult child may feel gypped."

A good editor would have excised "gypped," an ethnic slur.

Posted by: editor | June 24, 2008 12:17 AM | Report abuse

I agree with "editor." There is no place for slurs such as "gypped" in the Washington Post.

Posted by: Anonymous | June 24, 2008 8:37 AM | Report abuse

Editor and June 24, 2008 - At the risk of offending any young goats in the audience, You've got to be kidding!

Posted by: No Name | June 24, 2008 12:35 PM | Report abuse

Add my post to those opposed to ethnic slurs. For good reason, slights like "gypped", used unthinkingly in our grandparents' time, are almost never heard today. Since African Americans [I think] mid last century gave us the nifty "ripped off" there seems no excuse for the "g" word.

Posted by: jhbyer | June 24, 2008 12:59 PM | Report abuse

No Name,
"kidding" refers not to theft but playfulness. If goats could read, they'd rightfully be flattered.

Would you want your ethnic group to be used in speech to refer to a crime?

Posted by: jhbyer | June 24, 2008 1:09 PM | Report abuse

As the person who was quoted in this blog, I would like to add my concerns about the word "gypped" - It was not a word that I contributed to the conversation. I'm thankful too that others are concerned with this terminology and hope this discussion will help spreading a greater understanding of every day words that have deeper and at times, hurtful, meanings.

Posted by: Jana DeCristofaro | June 24, 2008 2:41 PM | Report abuse

I apologize to readers who were offended by my use of the word "gypped," which I have used all my life without knowing it was offensive to any ethnic group. I certainly didn't intend to offend anyone. I apologize also to Jana DeCristofaro for any implication that the word was hers; it was mine alone.

Posted by: Jennifer Huget | June 24, 2008 6:28 PM | Report abuse

Why do young adults need to come together with "peers"? When did people of other age groups become the only people we should relate to or imagine can empathize with us? Wouldn't older people who have had many life experiences and younger people who look to us for guidance be supportive as well? We are increasingly building age-segregated societies, without an argument for why this should be so. Do we really need social workers to reinforce our prejudices without examining the reasons? "Older people are boring and go to bed early; they think they know better than we do." "Young people today are wild, thoughtless, and do all kinds of things we never dreamed of." Or some other arguments. But we should consider what we lose when we cater to our impatience and intolerance of others. Wisdom? Energy? Dialogue? Caregivers and parent-figures?

Posted by: Katherine | June 24, 2008 11:22 PM | Report abuse

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