How Young People Cope With Their Grief After Losing A Parent

“You’re going to be sad and you can’t avoid it."
How a young person deals with the grief that comes with losing a parent looks different for everyone.
How a young person deals with the grief that comes with losing a parent looks different for everyone.

Days shy of my 19th birthday I lost my mom to esophageal cancer. Three months after she was diagnosed, she was gone, and I went from having a present mother in my life to not having one at all.

To cope with my grief I talked to anyone who would give me the time of day and spilled my guts to them. I distracted myself with work, school, friends, boys, alcohol anything to keep myself busy.

WATCH: Things they don’t tell you when you lose a parent. Story continues below.

For D’Arcy McGrath, talking was also a way of coping after losing his mom to breast cancer when he was 18 years old.

McGrath, 50, who lives in Calgary, said the loss of his mother made him “grow up in a minute.” “You had to look at life so much differently than how you would’ve otherwise,” he told HuffPost Canada. “You saw life for what it was. What did and didn’t matter.”

McGrath recently went through his own cancer battle, which he says was exactly the same as his mom’s. He went into remission last year. “It was huge,” he said. “Being a man that has breast cancer is quite a shock, especially when it kills your mom, then it’s even harder for everyone.”

“It changed who I was. I think I would’ve been a different adult if I didn’t go through it,” said McGrath.

Grieving looks different for everyone

How a young person deals with the grief that comes with losing a parent looks different for everyone, depending on the nature of their parent’s death and what the child-parent relationship looked like.

“People experience things in quite different ways, but I would say that depression and anxieties are almost universal,” John Neumin, a registered psychotherapist based in Toronto, told HuffPost Canada.

Neumin says when a person experiences the loss of a loved one, it can start a process where they now have to grapple with mortality. “People feel like one of their primary supports is gone and they’re not sure how to get through life or how to live yet.”

Watch: How to help a friend grieving the loss of a parent. Story continues below.

According to Healthline, different symptoms of depression can include: a loss of interest in activities you’d normally enjoy, increased fatigue, sleep problems, anxiety, and changes in appetite.

Anxiety is so prevalent in someone who’s grieving that The Washington Post reported that anxiety should be included as a stage of grief, because of how common it is.

Claire Bidwell Smith, a Los Angeles-based therapist, wrote that, “Grief and anxiety are inextricably linked. We experience anxiety after a loss because losing someone we love thrusts us into a vulnerable place.

“It changes our day-to-day lives. It forces us to confront our mortality, and facing these fundamental human truths about life’s unpredictability causes fear and anxiety to surface in profound ways.”

“Grief and anxiety are inextricably linked," wrote Claire Bidwell Smith, a Los Angeles-based therapist.
“Grief and anxiety are inextricably linked," wrote Claire Bidwell Smith, a Los Angeles-based therapist.

Jess Erb, a registered psychotherapist based in Toronto, told HuffPost Canada that there is a big difference between losing someone at a young age versus losing a parent when you’re older.

The No. 1 difference is the loss of a future with that person, says Erb. “A parent is our caregiver and at a young age we’re still getting that care,” she said. “When you lose someone that young you really don’t have a sense of support anymore.”

Even if a child wasn’t close with their parent, Erb says they still have to process the fact that they won’t have the opportunity to rebuild a relationship with that person.

Different ways we cope

There’s no wrong way to cope with losing a parent, but some ways can be more beneficial than others. Common unhealthy ways people cope can be summed up as distractions, said Neumin. Distractions can manifest themselves in many ways and can take the form of keeping busy or as addictiona, he adds.

While we often associate alcohol and drugs as the more common types of coping mechanisms, Neumin says compulsive sexual activity or even compulsive video game playing can also be ways of distracting yourself from what you’re really feeling.

Young people will often come up with a number of different coping strategies to push away the pain, says Erb.

“When we’re young and we have our future ahead of us, focusing on the future rather than the immediate loss of the present is a major coping mechanism,” said Erb. “It’s an adaptive one.”

“You've now pushed that loss aside. It's not gone — if anything, it’s kind of beside you.”

- Jess Erb, registered psychotherapist

Erb says a common coping mechanism a lot of people do is keeping busy, in an effort to avoid their grief.

“You’ve now pushed that loss aside. It’s not gone if anything, it’s kind of beside you. But it’s certainly not in your forefront. And what happens is you get better and better at not looking that way. It’s almost as if it becomes this kind of taboo site.”

McGrath says the big thing young people have to grapple with after loss is accepting the sadness that comes with it. “You’re going to be sad and you can’t avoid it,” he said.

“The sadness is actually something you embrace after you’ve been through the pain, because it brings you closer to the person that you can’t be close to anymore. And that’s the best thing you can do going forward.”

“The sadness is actually something you embrace after you’ve been through the pain, because it brings you closer to the person that you can’t be close to anymore.”

- D'Arcy McGrath

Losing a parent you had a difficult relationship with

Julia, 21, who asked to be identified by only her first name for privacy reasons, lost her dad to suicide when she was 16 years old.

Julia and her father were not close; her parents divorced when she was 14 years old. “I saw [my dad] once a month at the most and I hated his guts,” she told HuffPost Canada. “He was awful.”

Yet, the Niagara Falls, Ont. native says she empathized with her father after his death. “I resented him in life, but not in death.”

The main thing that Julia says helped her get over the sudden loss of her father was resisting the urge to isolate herself. A self-proclaimed introvert, Julia had grown up loving being alone.

“Even if that’s the temptation, you’re better off being around other people,” she said. “Be selective of who you want to be around. If you don’t feel comfortable being around your family and talking with your family about it then don’t pressure yourself to, even if that’s what they’re expecting of you.”

“A challenge can be getting hung up on the 'What ifs' or the 'What could have beens,' which can get in the way of them being able to accept the reality of the loss.”

- Dan Wolfson, psychologist

Dan Wolfson, a psychologist and clinical director of Experience Camps for Grieving Children based in New York City told HuffPost in a previous interview that when someone who you’re not close to dies, you experience two separate losses.

“There’s the finality of there no longer being any room for repairing a relationship the person may wish could have been different. That is very different from grieving the loss of the person themselves.”

A challenge can be getting hung up on the “What ifs” or the “What could have beens,” which can get in the way of them being able to accept the reality of the loss, said Wolfson.

In the month leading up to his suicide, Julia’s father texted her asking her to go for lunch. She dodged the offer. After his death, she couldn’t help but think that the lunch could have been a possible excuse masqueraded as a way to say goodbye.

“I might have been reading too much into it, but that’s the last time he would have seen me and I didn’t give him that opportunity,” she said. “For a long time that really weighed heavy on me.”

Where to get help

Finding people you trust to talk about what you're feeling is an essential part of grieving. 
Finding people you trust to talk about what you're feeling is an essential part of grieving. 

After losing a parent, one of the things young people may face is loneliness, says Erb. “If you’ve lost a parent that young you may be one of the only people that you know that had that happen to you,” said Erb.

Finding people you trust who you can talk to is important. Neumin says a primary step in coping is building relationships instead of retreating and isolating yourself.

Seeing a professional, such as a counsellor, a psychologist, or a social worker, has its benefits because they are trained in how to handle grief. If there isn’t someone in your life you feel like you can turn to, seeing a therapist can be a great way to talk about things you don’t feel comfortable talking to anyone else about.

If a therapist isn’t an option, there are free support services available, too, which can usually be found through your local hospital’s mental health services website.

The Canadian Mental Health Association offers an adult bereavement program in Windsor and Essex County, Ont., which includes therapy, at no cost.

Dr. Jay Children’s Grief Centre in Toronto and Hospice Toronto provide free support for children, youth, and parents.

The Dinner Party is a grieving support group that can be found in cities across Canada, and is designed specifically for young people aged “20- and 30- somethings” who have lost someone. A yearly membership fee of $35 applies.

Private Facebook groups are also a great way to meet and talk to other people who are going through the same issues.

The Dinner Party is a grieving support group that can be found in cities across Canada.
The Dinner Party is a grieving support group that can be found in cities across Canada.

Neumin says even though life can be incredibly difficult and complicated after the loss of a parent, it’s what we do with our situation that makes all the difference.

“The tragedy of losing a parent at a young age can take a person in different directions depending on what they do with that loss,” he said.

“You can grow from it, you can have a better understanding of life and it’s value and its importance in our lives or you can withdraw or get more frightened and let it damage you. They make a difference. A huge difference.”

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