We expect to outlive our parents, but dealing with their death while still transitioning into adulthood hits hard. Millennials are increasingly adulting later in life, whether through choice or due to a lack of job and housing security, continuing to act care- and commitment-free for longer. With the late 20s and early 30s believed to be the best years of your life, as suggested by a recent YouGov survey, what happens if this generation – commonly characterised by their inability to grow up – lose a parent?
“Grief is difficult at whatever age but it’s particularly challenging for people bereaved in their 20s and 30s because it's likely that not many of their friends have experienced something similar,” says Nici Harrison, grief worker/transformational coach and founder of The Grief Space, a platform supporting loss through workshops, retreats and grief circles.
A parent’s death can be a long and drawn out process or a sudden and unexpected event. Young people may take longer to adjust and accept their situation because they have less infrastructure and routine in place, and fewer resources to fall back on.
Harrison knows this all too well. She launched The Grief Space in 2020 after losing her mother to suicide, when she was 23. Despite her mother living with depression for many years, her death was still a shock and the recovery process, painful.
“My grief took me to unimaginable depths,” she says. “I felt separated from the world. It changed me; I had therapy but I needed space to express the magnitude of my experience and meet others who had lost parents. I learned about grief tending [the practice of allowing time and space to nurture grief] and the philosophy around welcoming [grief] in. I wanted to create what I wish I’d had… so I started The Grief Space.”
The Grief Space provides a platform to learn and understand grief. She cites poor communication as the biggest issue around processing death: “People don’t have the language to explain that they don’t want others to make it better; they just need to be witnessed. It’s difficult talking about the persistence of grief, how it can change the entire landscape of our lives and leave us in a perpetual state of loneliness.”
“I didn't know anyone who had been through anything similar,” says Rachel Wilson, who lost her mother to cancer when she was 26 and is releasing a book about her experiences next year titled Losing You(ng): How to Grieve When Your Life is Just Beginning. Although her mum was diagnosed a year earlier, rather than preparing her for what was coming, the news brought on anticipatory grief.
“I felt isolated and disoriented following the initial diagnosis,” she says. “I was in denial for most of the time she was ill. It was difficult leading a 'normal' 25-year-old life; finishing my Master's degree, interviewing for jobs and going on dates, knowing that at some point I was going to have to face up to my mum dying.”
Guilt can be induced through disassociation around a parent’s death. This can be triggered by not being fully present during a parent’s final moments or detaching from your own life experiences. While Wilson’s friends were supportive, she felt disconnected by their inability to relate. She reached out to her favourite – now defunct – podcast, The High Low, for advice and was connected to listeners with similar experiences, whom she met.
These meet-ups quickly expanded, forming The Grief Network, which now runs monthly meetings, events and talks. Rallying a community together and leaning on available support networks – whether through remaining family or friends - can help with grounding emotions, while being surrounded by those that know you prior to the loss or knew the deceased can be reassuring.
In 2015, at 26, Emily Thornton lost her mum to a brain tumour-induced seizure. Despite throwing herself back into work, she credits her friends for getting her through. Luckily, many understood having also lost a parent, but she admits: “Everyone copes differently… Selfishly you expect the world to stop when your loved one passes. Grief is full of ebbs and flows but my friends have been the kindest, most patient people. Small gestures help massively.”
Her friends send her flowers annually on her mum’s birthday, Mother’s Day and the anniversary of her death; they even ran Race for Life to commemorate her passing. Thornton also uses tarot cards to guide her through life; they connect her to her mother, who was also interested in tarot. She is at ease with her journey, having had visits from her mum in dreams affirming her process.
Lina Barker’s mother died suddenly and unexpectedly when she was 25. Hailing from a Muslim family where traditions require the dead to be buried as soon as possible complicated things for her – especially with her mum based abroad: “Everything happened extremely fast. I found out that my mum had died around 7AM in the morning and by 8PM, I was on a flight to Tanzania. The minute my sister and I landed, we were ushered into her funeral. I didn’t have a moment to digest or process my thoughts.”
On returning to the UK more people came to pay their respects, but Barker was so overwhelmed that she moved abroad to process the death on her own terms. “That’s when it hit home and the real mourning began. It was hectic when my mum died; moving to the Netherlands provided time for me to focus on my grief.”
Logistically, pulling together a funeral can be a stressful and emotionally-triggering affair, but it can also serve as a cathartic process, reinstate autonomy in an otherwise uncontrollable situation. “I helped arrange the funeral with my brother and father,” says Wilson, “I wrote my mum's eulogy and did a reading; and we carried her coffin together. Because she died of cancer, she was also involved in the planning, which was comforting.”
Inevitably, there can be even greater strains with processing the death of a parent if all responsibilities fall to the child. Lisa Smith, who requested anonymity to protect her identity, lost her estranged father aged 23, after his long battle with a debilitating illness. Though she’d had a difficult relationship with her father since her parents had separated – he had been emotionally abusive towards her mother and stolen from others – she was legally tasked with handling immediate practicalities, like organising the funeral and wake.
“There is a surprising amount of admin related to a person dying,” says Smith. “My dad died without leaving anything behind to pay his funeral costs so I had to arrange a payment plan to deal with it. I felt extremely let down that he hadn’t thought to set aside some funds to ensure it wouldn't fall to me. It was crushing watching the payments leave my account each month; they only made my grieving process harder.”
This financial burden and associated stress isn’t surprising given that the average cost of dying in the UK totals £8,864, with a basic funeral priced at £4,056 - which is staggering considering that millennials (those currently aged between 22-39 years old) earn an average annual salary of £29,180.25.
Soon after losing her father, Smith had a friend go through the same process but rather than relate to her experience, she couldn’t help but compare situations. Her friend inherited enough money to go travelling and buy a house.
“I really struggled with the fact that there were no silver linings for me,” says Smith. “I dealt with this by spending recklessly when I couldn't afford to. I felt that after what I had been through, I deserved to have nice things and enjoy my life so I racked up thousands of pounds of credit card debt buying clothes, getting my nails done and going out. I am now working to pay off my outstanding balance.”
Grief can provide the affected with new ways of thinking and an opportunity to reassess priorities. Smith admits she was relieved by her father’s passing. She relied on Cariad Lloyd's Griefcast podcast and Swedish “death cleaning” – a process of decluttering life and organising – to restore her peace. For Barker, the process connected her to her emotions despite initially avoiding the pain of losing her mum. Wilson prioritised her physical and mental wellbeing, while Thornton realised the importance of spending time with her remaining family.
Losing a parent while still easing into adult life can remind you how precious and fleeting time is. Young people are willing to creatively seek community and find alternative coping mechanisms to support their grief - whether in the form of spirituality, therapy, escapism or friendship – but it’s an individual process.
“Everything that you feel is welcome,” says Harrison. “Find support and look after your body; grief is exhausting. Tend to your grief, create space and allow it to shift - I promise it always changes. You never have to ‘get over this’ but you will expand your capacity to hold it and find a way to build a new life around it.”