Written as an op-ed for a Community Healthcare class at the University of Pennsylvania
Over coffee, a new acquaintance asks me a typical “get-to-know-you- better” question: “So what does your mom do?”
Despite its frequency, this seemingly benign question always catches me off guard due to its temporal aspect: the present tense of do. I think to myself: Do we really have to bring that up now?
If I tell my new friend the truth – that my mother passed away six years ago – I know the conversation will be over.
I have gotten good at deflecting these questions, or framing my responses so it sounds like she still is alive, not because I want to, but simply out of necessity. I lie to people because I want to avoid the awkward, pathetic look I receive and the comments of “I’m so sorry.” It’s difficult and sometimes impossible to recover a conversation after that. This fear of how others will react is an isolating reality of losing a parent at a young age.
Grief, in general, has become taboo to talk about, especially for the adolescent and young adult community because so many of us, especially at Penn, have gotten used to putting a smile on and masking how we feel. It is expected for individuals after an allotted period of time to bounce back from any situation. For high schoolers and college students, week-long extensions are the norm for when one has lost a loved one, but one week is a small snippet of the grieving process.
One young adult, Ayesha Amin (2015), when talking about her grief stated that “Six months after losing my mom I was expected, according to studies, to be over it.” As students, we live in a world surrounded by deadlines, due dates, and time limits but the problem is grief is not a formula. Like a disease, grief affects every individual differently and in varying levels of severity. “Virtually all children will go through it (grief) — but that doesn’t mean it’s a normalizing experience,” says Dr. David Schonfeld. “Even though it’s common, it warrants our attention.”
Grieving at any period in life is dreadful, however, strenuous times such as in high school and college is made more complicated when the loss of a loved one makes one stick out like a sore thumb. Peers of these students, do not want to ask questions for fear of causing a scene or saying the “wrong thing” so instead, they avoid the topic in its entirety. Recently, Vivian Nunez, founder of a website for grieving young adults commented on how she does not get the opportunity to talk about her mother and grandmother because others simply don’t know how to ask.
“I have stories I’m sitting on when it comes to my mom and grandma. I’d like for people to understand that just because they’re not in my life presently doesn’t mean they impact my life any less,” she said.
Young adults and teenagers who have lost someone preach the similar fact that they wish they could talk about deceased family members without being judged or having different reactions than if they were alive.
Personally, talking helps and if I wasn’t afraid of the reactions of others all the time, I would have more opportunity to do so. It is imperative as a society that we stop emphasizing the value of appearing happy all the time and allow ourselves to admit that it is perfectly okay to not be okay. We as a community of young adults need to realize that sometimes the best way to help someone is to listen, encourage the conversation and not be afraid to talk. As Vivian Nunez states, “Don’t ask me how my mom died, ask me how she lived.”
Resources are listed below to further the discussion and learn more about how we can handle grief better as a society: