Dear Young People: Grieving Is Harder Than You Think

March 6th 2015

Laura Donovan

On the morning of my senior prom, my father lost his short-lived but brutal battle to liver cancer, and everyone from classmates I hadn't spoken to in years to direct relatives felt sorry for me. Though it was unfair to endure such a tumultuous, sudden loss as a teenager, I had boundless support from adults. Because I was just a child, it was assumed that I needed comforting.

What's often overlooked is how difficult loss can be after you're out of the house, earning a living, expected to be a grown up about the circle of life. My 88-year-old childhood babysitter/adopted grandmother recently died, and because I was searching for employment when it happened, I couldn't simply prioritize my grief. I had bills to pay and job interviews for which to prepare. People with demanding professions might even bury themselves in work, not just as a way to deal with the sadness, but because they can't afford to fall behind. 

Grieving as a Millennial, particularly one over 18, is made harder thanks to the Internet, tough economic times, and expectations of resilience in the workplace. Emily Kaiser recently published a powerful account of losing her mother in Washingtonian Magazine, stating she expected others to treat her "grief like a child's" even though she was 25 when it happened. As if feeling sad all the time wasn't painful enough, it didn't seem as though her coworkers could relate. "My loss, I think, required a different kind of vocabulary, one that my colleagues—and most other people—didn’t have," Kaiser wrote. "As the days and weeks piled on, I became obsessed with the silence. Did my colleagues not offer any condolences because they didn’t know what to say? Were they worried they would make me cry? Or was it me—was I crazy?"

The impact of grief when you're reliant on mom and dad

For better or worse, Millennials are also personally and financially supported on their parents at times, so losing one or both of them can have a profound impact on one's life. A 2013 Census report found that almost 15 percent of 25-34 year olds were living at home. Millennials are delaying marriage and even eschewing it altogether, and as older generations enjoy pointing out, we're taking longer to fully transition into adulthood all around. Millennials might still be on their parents' phone plan as well, or getting some extra money for car and/or health insurance every month. The support isn't about being spoiled either. Census research shows that young adults now earn $2,000 less than young adults in 1980 did. Compared to Baby Boomers, more Millennials are unemployed and poverty-striken. More young adults are moving back in with mom and dad, and fewer are getting married. We very much need our parents, and we're not afraid to admit it.

But what about those who can't afford to grieve?

It might be even more of a struggle for Millennials who don't receive financial assistance from others. Low-income workers may not have the luxury of taking time off to grieve. In a sense, they can't afford to grieve. The Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) doesn't require employers to provide payment for grieving periods, leaving some with the unfortunate choice between making money or going to memorial services. Those who stay at work might not be able to maintain composure all the time. In 2009, Stephanie Illgenfritz detailed an uncomfortable grief-related office encounter in The Wall Street Journal. Illgenfritz once witnessed a colleague break down over the loss of a grandchild, and when she left the room, a manager said, “When my Dad died, I was back at work the next day.” You might have a flexible boss who doesn't deduct your paycheck, or you might be met with insensitivity.

Grieving on the Internet.

Social media plays a big role in how we deal with death. Most Millennials have a web presence, and it's common to see them post photos or status updates on social media when someone close to them is gone. "My God, is there anything creepier than a post announcing someone lost a loved one and seeing '136 people like this' underneath?" Rebecca Soffer, co-founder of Modern Loss, told the New York Times last year. After losing her father unexpectedly in 2010, she and Gabrielle Birkner started their website to help others with their own losses. Modern Loss's essays cover everything from finding out about death via social media to leaving voicemails for deceased loved ones. With Facebook being the second most visited website and so many of its users seemingly posting wedding, baby, and engagement announcements every week, the Internet can be imprisoning for the grieving.

Loss is heart-wrenching regardless of age. As long as older generations, colleagues, and acquaintances recognize that and don't expect Millennials to swiftly bounce back from it simply because they're adults now, grief will be a little easier in day-to-day life.