Young adulthood is a time of launching and is best done under the guidance of supportive parents. Toddlers go through separation anxiety and need to reconnect with the parent to get reassurance, This is called “rapprochement”–a term invented by psychiatrist Margaret Mahler to describe healthy attachment and separation-individuation in children. Young adults are working developmentally and literally on separating from their parents, but also need the parent to be supportive and stable during the time of launching.
When a parent dies after an illness, or dies suddenly, the loss for a young adult is profound. Their parent is gone in the middle of an important developmental phase. Of course loss of a parent can be devastating no matter when in the life cycle it happens. However, young adults who have to face dealing with parents who have cancer, heart disease, or other life threatening illness have a burden that is truly difficult. Not only are they working on getting launched in their own life, but now they are thrust into the role of adulthood in a harsh way. A great feeling of guilt can arise as the demands of growing up and loss occur simultaneously. For young adult women, there may also be a sense of responsibility to care for the parent and sacrifice her own beginning independent life. This conflict can be very emotionally painful.
It’s possible that the young woman will put her grief on the back burner and seem to be handling the situation masterfully. This is sometimes done willfully and sometimes it is automatic. In either case, the grief doesn’t really go away, and can show up later, or in feelings of emptiness, depression, or impulsive behavior.
In situations of grief and loss, it is usually a good idea to get help either from family, spiritually, supportive friends, support groups, or therapy. Sometimes family therapy is helpful for parents and children facing the loss of their parent. Siblings can be invaluable to each other to face the loss together, but sometimes because of personality differences or different coping mechanisms, siblings may feel divided from each other at this time. Individual therapy for the young adult can also be helpful to alleviate guilt, decide how much to focus on her own life vs. be with the dying parent, and express her feelings. The grief process usually includes anger as well as sadness and it is quite natural to feel angry with a parent who is leaving prematurely.
As always, in situations of stress, it is also helpful to find means for self-care, rest, good nutrition and other forms of stress reduction. It may seem impossible to find the time for this, but it’s important to try.
If you are a young adult in this situation, it can be helpful to try thinking about what you need to help you get through this profound loss. Your siblings and other family members may be there for you or there might be some conflicts. Your friends might have a hard time understanding or feel afraid to talk with you about what you are going through. You may feel alone and misunderstood. You may feel jealous of others whose parents are healthy. The best chance of finding connection is with others who have had a similar experience–anyone who has lost a parent will know more about what it’s like, even if they are older. The internet has many ways to connect and get support. One example is a website I just discovered called Hello Grief. Their byline: We’re not afraid to talk about grief and loss. There you will find articles, forums, community, and resources. Perhaps it will be a start or a next step on your journey of healing.