Two weeks after her 21st birthday, Nicole Muldrow lost the most important person in her life: her mother.
She had spent her teenage years caring for her mother, Amalia, who suffered from Marfan syndrome – a connective tissue disorder that affected her heart. After high school, Muldrow attended American River College, studying nursing and bracing for the day her mom wouldn’t be there. When it came, she was unprepared.
The days after her mother’s death were dark ones, spent walking around an empty house that no longer smelled like home-cooked Mexican food. There were funeral arrangements to make, bill payments to take over – a laundry list of things that most 21-year-olds don’t know the first thing about. Muldrow’s siblings and stepfather promptly returned to homes and family in other cities. Muldrow had only her mother’s dog, Margarita, who still whined for Amalia’s warm, playful presence.
“Right after I lost my mom, I noticed everybody had their own place to go,” she said. “When all the doors closed, I was still there.”
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Her story echoes that of many 20-somethings who lose a parent – an event that experts say is distinctly traumatic for those in transition between childhood and adulthood. A gap in appropriate services for young grievers has come to light in recent years as experts acknowledge “emerging adults” – millennials in their 20s and early 30s who often remain emotionally attached and financially dependent on their parents far longer than previous generations.
Fifty years ago, if a young person lost a parent, “You were told to buck up and get on with it, because there’s nothing to cry about,” said Don Lewis, head of a UC Davis Medical Center young adult bereavement group who speaks and writes nationally on the topic.
But grieving doesn’t work that way, especially for young people, he said. “Programs are slowly realizing that we’ve got to provide something separate to this age group.”
‘They’re not there yet’
Hard numbers are difficult to find on how many millennials have lost a parent. At any given time, roughly 22 percent to 30 percent of college undergraduates are in their first 12 months of grieving for a loved one – a parent, grandparent, sibling or close friend, according to a Wiley InterScience review of academic studies and mental health research.
Losing a parent for anyone is unsettling, but it’s particularly so for this generation of young millennials, who tend to settle down later in marriage, careers and homes than their parents’ generation. Having come of age during the recession, many are saddled with student loan debt and may still be financially dependent on their parents.
They’re “on their way to adulthood, but they’re not there yet,” said Jeffrey Arnett, a Massachussetts-based psychologist who has written two books on what he calls ‘emerging adulthood.’
“They’re independent and not committed to the structure of an adult life,” Arnett said. And with the median marriage age closer to 30, he noted, many do not have the emotional support of a spouse.
Being in the “emerging” stage when a parent dies can cause young adults to feel like their world has blown up, said UCD’s Lewis. Whether they’re in school part time, starting a new job or navigating the early stages of an adult relationship, emerging adults “need older adults to be stable and consistent” and to guide them over bridges they have not yet crossed.
Brendan Repicky was 21 when he lost his dad to prostate cancer, just one day after graduating from UC Davis in December 2011. His father was “one of his best friends,” and his untimely death left Repicky “inconsolable,” even with support from his mother and friends.
“I was independent, but I still had a very serious connection with my parents,” said Repicky, now 25 and working full time. “ I’ve learned so much (since then) about life … and it just makes me angry that I don’t have my dad to talk about those things with.”
Feelings of anger and depression, both included in the late psychiatrist Elisabeth Kubler-Ross’s long-referenced five stages of grief, are often heightened for a young adult, whose prefrontal cortex – the area that controls emotion and higher cognitive functioning – can continue to mature for up to 10 years after puberty, according to recent research from the National Institutes of Health.
As such, parental death is “often so tragic it becomes an obstacle” for emerging adults, said Ronald Lutz, director of student health and counseling services at Sacramento State. While loss can sometimes be a catalyst for positive change, that’s rarely the case for 20-somethings, he said, who may not have a clear sense of the future and are more likely to resort to suicide or substance abuse.
“This may really obstruct their development for a while,” Lutz said. “When they haven’t had a lot of tempering or a lot of experience in life, they tend to just feel that this is unfair … Part of the challenge is to help them keep finding meaning.”
A gap in services
The lack of services for young adults is being discussed in bereavement circles, according to Kenneth J. Doka, senior consultant with the Hospice Foundation of America. It’s part of a larger shift in the conversation around grief, which was once treated as a series of universal stages but is now considered as unique for each individual “as a fingerprint or a snowflake,” Doka wrote last year in a Huffington Post column on adolescent grief.
“It’s not that the problem has changed dramatically,” Doka said in an interview. “But it reflects a sensitivity to an emerging demographic group that likely did not exist years ago.”
A search through the National Bereavement Resource Guide reveals numerous grief programs for children and teens, but almost nothing directly aimed at young adults.
Getting support from peers is critical, Lewis said. While a 20-something adult can attend a general grief support meeting, they’re not likely to feel comfortable in a room full of people over age 50.
“That just doesn’t work,” Lewis said. “You really have to isolate this age group to get them the support they need.”
Meeting other young people who’ve lost a parent can help normalize the experience for 20-somethings, who often don’t know anyone else who has experienced death. Nicole Muldrow remembers friends going out to bars while she was struggling to pay off her mom’s mortgage.
“My friends were all the same age but they still had their mom and their dad,” she said. “I (didn’t) really have anyone to relate to because they really couldn’t understand what I was going through.”
Many young adults have not had prior experience in a group counseling setting, which can make them more reluctant to share feelings with strangers, Lewis said. To encourage participants in his UCD young adult group to open up, Lewis uses a tone that’s more mature than what he uses for children but more probing than what he uses for adults.
The fact that millennials are more accustomed to online and social media interactions than face-to-face ones can also be a challenge, experts say.
Young adult grievers are sometimes offended by how seemingly insensitive their social media communities can be about death. In one of Lewis’ groups, many participants deleted their Facebook profiles because it was too difficult to handle social media overload while processing grief.
“It’s not easy to gain the support you need in a virtual world,” Lewis said.
A place at the table
In response, a few millennial-specific grief support groups have launched in recent years.
One group, The Dinner Party, brings together bereaved people in their 20s and 30s at informal dinner tables in 27 U.S. cities, including San Francisco, Oakland, Los Angeles and San Diego. The point is to change the once-taboo topic of loss from a conversation killer to a conversation starter, said Lennon Flowers, 29, one of the group’s co-founders starting in 2010. She noticed the gap in age-appropriate support after her mom died from lung cancer when Flowers was 21.
“When you look at child bereavement in recent years, it’s been about creating spaces where kids can be kids, and that’s fantastic,” Flowers said. “We put much less effort into creating these spaces where 20-somethings can be 20-somethings … it’s a rare day and environment in which we can process (grief) in a way that feels casual.”
The Dinner Party’s premise is simple: A host who has experienced a significant loss invites anyone with a similar experience to share a potluck-style meal. It doesn’t claim to be therapy, simply a place where people can connect.
The group has grown from five tables in various cities to about 70 in the past year, including several in the East Bay. By year’s end, it hopes to launch 100 more. Currently, there is no Dinner Party group in Sacramento.
Eva Silverman, the 34-year-old co-host of an Oakland table that launched last June, said the gatherings usually start with drinks and small talk before a sit-down meal. Silverman, who had lost both of her parents by the time she was 19, said some of her tablemates have become like family.
“It just feels really good to host the table and have everyone together, in community, where you can just bring things up and it doesn’t silence the room,” she said. “People just get it, in their own way.”
There’s no easy way to navigate the loss of a parent, but young adults can emerge resilient, experts say.
For Muldrow, it started with finding support at Lewis’ UCD bereavement group in 2008. Now 28 and married, she lives in her mother’s Rancho Cordova home with her two daughters, one named Amalia after her mom. She’s waiting to get into another nursing program, and constantly wishing her mom was there to answer questions about child rearing.
“I grew up really fast. After my mom passed away, it was just like that,” Muldrow said, snapping her fingers. “And if I can go through that and survive, I can go through anything. Nothing’s ever going to be as hard as that.”
Helping a grieving friend
Suggestions from young grievers:
- Act normally. Losing someone is unsettling, and it can help grievers to be included in normal routines.
- Do something specific. Bland offerings of help don’t help. Offer a specific task: running errands, buying groceries, doing laundry.
- Just listen. Don’t tiptoe around a friend’s grief, compare it to something else or try to find a silver lining. Just let them share.
- Be patient. Years later, someone may not identify as grieving but will still be colored by the experience. Remain sensitive. Remember those who now live only in memory, by asking about those who’ve died.
Services tailored for bereaved young adults:
- Young Adult Bereavement Art Group: A weekly group for young adults, ages 17-24, hosted by the UC Davis Medical Center in Sacramento. Call Don Lewis at 916-734-1139 for details. Begins in September.
- Too Damn Young: An online community for grieving young adults. Visit TooDamnYoung.com or follow @2DamnYoung
- The Dinner Party: A national movement to bring together bereaved young adults through potluck dinners. Visit TheDinnerParty.org or follow @dinnerpartiers
- Crisis Text Line: A nationwide crisis hotline where young people can text for help. Visit CrisisTextLine.org or text 741-741.