When my mum was diagnosed with cancer, I was 25 and in the midst of your stock-standard quarter-life crisis. The addition of grief made me fall completely out of love with life, and I had no idea how I would cope for the rest of it without her to guide me through.
Of course, losing someone we love is a universal experience. But some of us go through that trauma years earlier than others, and when you’re still young that can feel incredibly isolating. It leaves you with an entirely new understanding of the question, what the fuck? Cue loneliness, fear and the question of how you’re supposed to live like that for years to come.
I craved conversation with other young people who “got it”, but when I started my own network for bereaved young people, I wondered initially if hearing about others’ pain might somehow deepen my own. Instead, I was surprised; having deep discussions with other grieving 20-somethings was actually uplifting and relieving. It could even be darkly funny. Mostly, it made me feel normal again.
I spoke to other people about the unexpected things that helped them, and continue to help them, move through their own grief.
Anwar, 23, lost his dad when he was 18
I just got a bit obsessed with sports, like binge-watching sports. It was a good distraction. But it was also maybe a way to feel emotions that [didn’t involve] fully breaking down, or explicitly getting into [my dad’s death].
Aisha, 31, lost her father when she was 25
Probably the most surprising thing [to help me cope] was sex, which feels strange to admit, because it doesn’t come into the grief conversation as much as other typical things like friends or family. It can feel weird to talk about because I guess there’s an assumption that it’s a bad way of coping, particularly for women. I thought I wouldn’t even feel like [having sex] for years, but at some point it felt like absolutely the best thing to do. Grief is quite a physical thing, and it can totally swamp you or make you feel a bit out of touch with your body, so being reminded that your body can be something other than a vessel for loss is really therapeutic. The intimacy and affection that comes with sex is quite healing.
Partying and meet-ups
Janki, 24, lost her mum when she was 23
I went out a lot. It seemed much more manageable to go out and get very drunk then sit at home trying to make sense of everything I was feeling. It was only really a year later that I slowed down from that. Now, meeting people who’ve been through similar experiences has provided me with an environment where I feel comfortable talking about my grief. This in turn has helped me to voice the way I feel to those close to me, and has reminded me there is no need for death to have such a stigma. It’s also been extremely reassuring to know I’m not alone in the way I’ve been coping, and everything I’ve felt is quite normal.
Maria, 31, lost her mum when she was 21
Basically anything physical. I needed a lot of physical affection, and went to a lot of dance classes and therapeutic holistic workshops (to the point where I think my friends thought I was going a bit mad). But really anything that allowed me to just “be” in my body without overthinking, which is kind of what you have to do with grief: allow it to exist in your body without judging it.
The news cycle
Adam, 27, lost his best friend when he was 25
I found a lot of solace in the news cycle. It’s something I’d usually try not to engage with too much, but any piece of news that related to human fallibility and shittiness – and in 2016/17 that was basically all of the news – helped in two ways. It matched up with my world view in that period, that the world was unfair, unjust and un-saveable. And in doing so it gave me some comfort, knowing that while my friend’s personal milestones and potential would go unclaimed, so would their exposure to the pain and suffering that people were causing.
Releasing the stigma
Freya, 30, lost her mum when she was 11
[What’s helped me] has changed over the years. My friends knew my mum had taken her own life, but in passing conversation I used to say to people she’d died in a car crash. The first time I used the word “suicide” with another teenager, it released something for me.
Then when I was 20, my first big break up helped me to recognise the severity of my abandonment issues, and that I needed much better psychological support. Now, at 30, what helps is using my experience [as a way] to move toward advocacy. To say my mother’s name in order to let other people say their loved one’s names, to destigmatise suicide, and to recognise that we’ll never stop grieving; [our grief] will always have a lineage, but we can also shape what that lineage will be.
Someone in the same boat
Ella, 25, lost her mum when she was 17
I didn’t really have anyone else to talk to about it, but I met a friend when I was travelling who’d lost her mum around the same age as I lost mine and we instantly became close. I’d never had the chance to talk to someone at length about the experience who’d had a similar thing happen and it was just a huge relief. You can compare coping mechanisms or whinge about your friends, and they can say they get it, and you can believe them.
Music, mutual friends and dreams
Charlie, 30, lost his best friend when he was 21
I was travelling alone overseas when I found out one of my closest friends had taken his life in the middle of a psychotic episode. I booked a flight home from the nearest city and took an overnight bus that night to get it. That night on the bus was the most difficult one for me; I was lonely, sad and confused about why he’d done it. I put in my headphones and listened to Boards of Canada and Aphex Twin, two of his favourite artists. I remember listening to that music helped relieve the feeling of loneliness.
When I got home, I spent a lot of time with our shared friends. We had much more frequent get-togethers, and would go around in a circle and recount memories we had with Miles, and why we loved him. I was lucky to be a part of those groups; we were able to share the grief and support each other.
Nowadays I love it when he comes up in conversation and we repeat a few funny stories or impersonations. It makes me feel like he won't just be forgotten, he's still making us laugh. He also features in my dreams every now and then, and I really appreciate getting to see him and hang out with him in those.
Are you 18-35, grieving a loss, and want to connect with people in the same boat? Head to the (free) Grief Network pop-up this Wednesday 29 Jan at Melbourne’s MPavillion.
Founded by Rachel Wilson in 2018, The Grief Network is a community for the young and bereaved. Follow Rachel on @rachel____wilson (IG) / @rachel___wilson (TW) / @griefnetwork (IG)