What You Should Know About Grief In Your 20s

What You Should Know About Grief In Your 20s

Death is a really uncomfortable topic—maybe especially for those of us in our twenties because this is the first time in life when we’re really starting to understand our own aging.

Death is a really uncomfortable topic—maybe especially for those of us in our twenties because this is the first time in life when we’re really starting to understand our own aging. In this decade of life “normal” experiences can range anywhere from married and settled to totally unattached and searching, but the one thing all twenty-somethings have in common is that we’re all just starting to learn how to be adults.

A few months ago, I was your somewhat typical twenty-something: high potential, too many interests, trying to figure out where to go with them. Stability wasn’t really a part of the picture, but that was okay. And then, suddenly, my world fell apart when I lost a loved one unexpectedly. Here’s what I have learned about grieving as a twenty-something in that time.

1. Nobody knows how to get this kind of news.

I got my news via phone call. Luckily, I had friends around who held me as I sobbed into the phone. This I could have expected, but what I didn’t expect was what would happen after: I had no idea what to do with myself. How do you end that call? What do you do when you hang up? Where do you go? Who talks to you? The biggest question of all: Why has the rest of the world continued to function normally as if nobody has realized that it just fell apart?

Nobody knows how to get this news. Some will go into shock, some will feel anger, some will have to ignore it as a survival instinct; there is no one right way to do it. The moments after you receive the news feel surreal, at once eerily quiet and overwhelmingly loud. In one sentence, your life story has changed, and nobody knows how to deal with that—not you, not your friends, and definitely not the world around you.

2. You are now different from everyone else.

After receiving my news, I felt profoundly different, like everybody else was on one side of some barrier and I was on the other. I felt like nobody could understand me without understanding what had happened—both immediately after and even months later. I look like a regular person, but looking like just a person doesn’t tell the whole story.

This thing has instantly become a part of you, and it may feel wrong if people don’t know. There’s no physical warning to others that you’re a marked person now; nobody realizes that you are separated from others in ways you can’t define, especially because most people your age haven’t been through what you have. Maybe you take things more seriously now; maybe you have more fear. Maybe you have a new discomfort with what now seem like the incredibly petty problems of your friends. You certainly have a different perspective on life, and you definitely have scars, even if they can’t be seen.

3. People don’t know what to do.

People—especially people our age—are really, really uncomfortable talking about death. Add to that the fact that most people in their 20s haven’t lost somebody close to them, and now you have people who don’t understand death and who wouldn’t want to talk about it anyway. Your friends don’t know where your boundaries are, and frankly, they’re afraid to find out; watching you go through this is really tough on them as well.

The most important thing to remember: This does not mean that they don’t care about you. The truth is that nobody knows what to do—not your friends, and not you. This may be everyone’s first time dealing with a person who is broken, or with a problem that can’t be fixed.

4. What you’re going through lasts a long time.

It’s pretty widely accepted that you won’t be something close to normal for a year. This doesn’t mean that you will be in a constant state of despair the whole time, but it does mean that your emotions will be pretty irregular. Sometimes, for no reason, you’ll wake up and know that this day just isn’t going to work out. Sometimes you might be surprised at how normal you feel. Often, you’ll be moving along smoothly until a memory or a song or a drive alone with wandering thoughts suddenly throws you straight into what I like to call “freak out mode.”

The thing is, people around you who haven’t dealt with death don’t realize this; they won’t be thinking about it 8 or 10 months after, and you will. When you have those “freak outs,” it might feel out of the question to call a friend and say, “Hey, remember how I lost somebody 6 months ago and we’ve barely talked about it since then? Well, today I can’t stand it, and I know that your day is normal, but now I need help with this problem that you can’t do anything about but listen.” Your friends and family will range widely in their receptiveness to this sort of behavior, but regardless of their reaction, know that your constantly thinking about your loss—even if others aren’t—is normal.

5. You now have a superpower.

You are now a part of this club whose membership you never wanted. You are different, your friends don’t know what to do, and neither do you. It feels so lonely. It is harder than your un-bereaved friends can understand. But it has given you a superpower.

Now you can understand others. Never again will you be insensitive to someone’s pain because you know what it feels like, and you know what it’s like to feel misunderstood. Now you can be that person who gets it for someone else, who helps another person through this awful thing that we all eventually have to go through.

When the time comes for my friends to experience the same losses I have, I’ll be the person who knows what to do because that can only happen when I’ve been through it myself. I’m like Harry Potter: I wish I hadn’t gotten this distinction so early, but as long as I have it, I’m going to use it for good.

Bottom line: Losing loved ones is an experience unlike anything else in life. You will question everything. You will feel things that you have never felt before, things that nobody should ever have to feel but that, for some reason, we all have to feel at some point in time. The way you interact with your friends, family, and the rest of the world will be different. Everything will change.

I wish that I could end this with a silver lining, but that doesn’t feel right. Instead, I’ll finish with a piece of advice, which doesn’t fix anything but still, somehow, is enough: Just take it one breath at a time.

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