How to cope with loss at a young age

BY Chantal Gautier

24th Jan 2024 Life

4 min read

How to cope with loss at a young age
Losing a loved one at a young age can be profoundly difficult. Chantal Gautier, sexologist and senior lecturer at the University of Westminster, shares how to cope
Grief can be described as the thoughts and feelings associated with loss, while mourning represents the outward expression associated with grief, such as crying or talking about the loss. Grief is a complex and individualised process that manifests differently for each person. Reactions to a loss can be both psychological and physical ranging from (but not limited to): confusion, emptiness, relief, fear, hopelessness, denial, despair, rage, withdrawal, shame, and guilt.
"Grief is a complex and individualised process that manifests differently for each person"
On a physical level, it is not uncommon to experience symptoms of insomnia, loss of appetite or weight gain, changes in levels of sexual desire and depression. The grieving process itself can also impact cognitive functioning. For example, concentration may waver, memory may become foggy, and decision-making might be compromised. All in all, it is important to remember that all these responses are normal. However, when emotions are left unaddressed, they can impact mental health when we don’t or do not know how to deal with them.

The impact of loss on mental health

Losing a loved one at a young age can be a profound and challenging experience that can have lasting effects on mental health and relationships. One of the key ways in which losing a loved one affects mental health is through the disruption of a person’s sense of security and stability. Young individuals often rely on their families, or carers for emotional support and a sense of safety. The death for example of a close loved one can sometimes shatter this foundation, leaving them feeling vulnerable and exposed to a world that suddenly feels unpredictable. This uncertainty may contribute to increased anxiety as individuals struggle with the fear of additional losses or the fragility of life while simultaneously trying to make sense of death and their feelings. 
The experience of loss may also lead to a fear of attachment, as individuals may subconsciously attempt to shield themselves from the potential pain of future separations. This fear can manifest in difficulties with forming deep connections or maintaining long-term relationships in later life, as the emotional vulnerability that accompanies closeness may be perceived as a threat.
At the same time, some individuals may develop an intense need for connection as a coping mechanism. The fear of being alone or abandoned may drive them to seek constant reassurance and proximity from others. While this can foster close relationships, it may also place pressure on significant others, who may struggle to meet these emotional demands.

How to deal with loss

So, what steps can young people take to support themselves when dealing with loss? To begin, it is important to recognise that grief varies from one person to another and that there is no one-size-fits-all to how we should grieve, mourn, or process our grief. For example, one approach supposes that over time, a person’s grief will stay much the same, but that life will begin to grow around it. This idea acknowledges that it is okay for grief to always be part of one’s life but that the grief will not necessarily feel as intense as at the moment of the loss.
Stage theorists, on the other hand, suggest that people progress through a series of emotional stages. The initial stage involves "disbelief", characterised by the non-acceptance of the reality of the loss. This may manifest through feelings of numbness and shock eventually evolving into an intense "yearning" for the lost one. The realisation that the person is no longer alive can evoke feelings of "anger", for instance, towards the deceased loved one. As reality sets in, individuals experience situational "depression" through deep feelings of sadness, helplessness and crying spells. "Acceptance" here, is often considered the "final stage" of grief, where individuals come to reconcile with their loss and eventually rediscover joy and happiness. 
"There is no one-size-fits-all to how we should grieve, mourn, or process our grief"
The grieving process can also influence how individuals express and handle their emotions, particularly when we consider cross-cultural influences and the broader social contexts of grief and grieving. Some individuals may find it challenging to open up about their feelings, fearing that they will burden others or be perceived as weak. As a coping mechanism, individuals might therefore immerse themselves in various activities to distract from their grief. While this can provide temporary relief, it may ultimately hamper the healing process or trigger lasting effects on a person’s mental health and relationships.
Courage is required to openly discuss struggles, especially in cultures that stigmatise seeking mental health support as a sign of weakness. Therapy and (bereavement) counselling can be instrumental in helping individuals navigate the complex terrain of grief. It can provide a safe and compassionate space to express emotions, explore coping mechanisms, help develop strategies and alleviate anxiety.
Perhaps the key takeaway here is that there is no universal right or wrong way to navigate the experience of loss. What matters most is recognising and addressing the distinctive challenges confronted by young people in the aftermath of loss. Lastly, it is crucial to understand that suffering in silence is not the only option. There are resources and support networks available, waiting to assist when you are ready to reach out.
Chantal Gautier is a fully qualified relationship therapist and senior lecturer at the University of Westminster
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