8700 Manchaca Road, Suite 306, Austin, TX 78748

Emerging Adulthood and Mourning

The Washingtonian recently published an article written by a woman in her twenties on how millennials mourn. For people in the “millennial” generation the experience of losing a loved one this early in life is profoundly different than anything experienced by generations that came before.

The death of a parent is a common occurrence. My loss was acknowledged like every other: a card passed around to sign, a meal delivered to my home during funeral planning. But the brutal specifics of it felt so different from those of my colleagues who had buried 80-year-old parents. Didn’t they realize? 

Outside work, my friends did all they could to comfort me, but it wasn’t enough.

In the 1950’s Erik Erikson outlined eight stages of life development and the tasks a person needs to master during each stage. Erikson theorized that in adolescence a person is figuring out their own identity, learning how to fit in socially and working out their own sense of morality. In young adulthood (ages 18 to 35 ), the person is seeking relationships, settling down and starting a family.

However, today the lines between adolescence and adulthood have started to blur, creating what seems to be a different stage of life: emerging adulthood. Jeffrey Jensen Arnett suggests that this is a time from late adolescence to the mid or late twenties. Daniel Levinson suggested that the time from 18 to 33 could be called the “novice” phase of development. One study asked people in this age range if they thought they had reached adulthood. Over two-thirds responded with some ambiguity, saying “both yes and no,” or they just said “no.”

Emerging adulthood is said to be a time when a person no longer has the same dependence of childhood and adolescence, but still do not have the long-term responsibilities of adulthood. This is a time when millennials might still be exploring directions for their lives in terms of career, relationships and their view of the world. Nothing is yet set in stone. Levinson suggests that this can be a time of change and instability while determining a direction in life.

So, how does all of this impact millennials working through the mourning process of a significant loss like a parent or sibling? Often those who grieve feel alone, helpless and isolated, as though they’re stuck inside a bubble with the world and life going on all around them. But for millennials in the emerging adulthood stage of life, feeling alone can be even more profound.

As a millennial, if you have lost a parent then who do you turn to for support? Living alone and not being in a significant relationship can amplify the sense of being isolated in your grief. If your aloneness becomes too intense and you decide to move back in with your family, your sense of independence will likely disappear. You may also lose the expectation of having a parent with you to celebrate and witness important events in your life: your graduation, career promotions, your marriage or having a child. Who will tell you stories about when you were growing up to relate to your new child? When others talk about their parents, the feeling of sadness and being alone will likely come back again.

For the millennial who has lost a close sibling, who can replace that relationship? Your confidant may be gone, the person who can relate with you about experiences growing up. Gone are the dreams of having your children grow up together and be close, like the two of you had been. Who will be your best man or matron of honor? This was supposed to be your brother or sister.

As a millennial, your grief is different. It is not the same as when someone who is 50 or 60 loses an elderly parent, and also not like the grief of a child who has lost a parent to illness or tragedy. It’s somewhere between the two and most people are not sure what to say or how to relate. Sometimes the silence is deafening.

For the woman writing the Washingtonian article, finding a support group of people of similar age with a similar loss was her answer.

If our parents hadn’t died while we were in our twenties, I don’t know that we ever would have met. But because they did, we’ve become close in a way I may never replicate with friends I’ve had for much longer.

As a person growing up in the millennial generation, you need to find a person or group that understands your unique experience, your unique grief. A group of other millennials who are mourning the death of a parent or sibling can provide the kind of support that you can relate to. At other times, you may need to talk with someone about more personal or specific parts of your grief, or you may just have some questions you need to ask. You are in a special, important time of your life and the work of mourning the loss of someone you love can be especially difficult. Consider using the contact link on my website or my email address (ray@lifghtfindinghope.com) to contact me about groups or personal counseling. You can also use the contact link to schedule an appointment.

About the Author

Ray has been a Licensed Professional Counselor in the state of Texas since 1993. He is also a Clinical Fellow with the American Association for Marriage and Family Therapy and a current member of the Association for Death Education and Counseling. Ray has been working with grieving families for more than 20 years as a counselor, educator and the leader of a crisis response team.