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For millennials in mourning, grief can run deep

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Emily Kaiser mother's ashes in August 2014
Emily Kaiser spreads her mother's ashes in August 2014 off Mackworth Island in Falmouth, Maine.
Photo by Paul Kaiser / Courtesy of Emily Kaiser

After her mother died in 2013, Emily Kaiser discovered a grief she'd never known — as well as an unexpected alienation from her friends and co-workers.

"Plenty of people get uncomfortable about death and say tone-deaf things to the bereaved," the public radio web producer wrote in Washingtonian magazine. "But there seemed to be a common thread here: My loss, I think, required a different kind of vocabulary, one that my colleagues — and most other people — didn't have."

Emily Kaiser and her mom, dad and brother
Emily Kaiser and her mom, dad and brother in a photo booth at a Twin Cities pizza shop.
Photo courtesy of Emily Kaiser

Kaiser was 26 when cancer took her mother's life. Her mom was 56. "I was mostly in denial about it until the very end," Kaiser wrote, "and when it finally came, the gloom I sank into was profound. For six months, I could hardly function. It was as if I'd become estranged from everyone in my life.

"At the radio station where I now work, I'm young enough to be the daughter of many of my baby-boomer coworkers. The death of a parent is a common occurrence. My loss was acknowledged like every other: a card passed around to sign, a meal delivered to my home during funeral planning. But the brutal specifics of it felt so different from those of my colleagues who had buried 80-year-old parents. Didn't they realize?"

In the nearly two years since then, Kaiser has learned that, as she had suspected, there was "something generational at work" in the severity of her grief. 

"Millennials came of age with the internet and amid the uncertainties of a recession, and that's connected us to our parents in ways that Gen Xers and boomers never were with theirs," she wrote. "And now, because at age 26 or 27 we're not rushing to walk down the aisle or buy our first home, we still think of our parents as the central pillars of our family."

The website Modern Loss devotes itself to millennials' experience of death and grief. Some of the accounts contributed to the site sound themes that are similar to Kaiser's story.

"My mother died when I was 18," wrote Claire Bidwell Smith. "I was in my freshman year of college, far from home. I had only just left the nest when it suddenly disappeared from me altogether. Her loss permeated into the deepest reaches of my psyche and my daily life, changing everything about the woman I would become."

Kaiser and one of the founders of Modern Loss joined The Daily Circuit to talk about how millennials cope with grief.

— Eric Ringham, MPR News senior editor

Kaiser's tips for grievers, coworkers and loved ones

If your coworker is mourning:

• Send a personal email. The department-wide card is nice, but it limits your condolences to a couple words. Take the time to reach out and express condolences. It helps make their transition back easier, too, because you don't have to approach them in the workplace to express condolences in person, which can be awkward for both people. On their first day back, you can just say, "Good to see you! Welcome back!"

• Remember that grieving takes over their life. It's all they are thinking about. Be kind. Grief can take a toll on your memory, attention span, energy. It's hard to do simple tasks that feel so meaningless when you're deep in grief. Offer to take on some of their responsibilities to make it easier when they come back or if you notice them struggling.

• Make note of major holidays and anniversaries. Write down the day their loved one died. It never hurts to just send people an email on holidays (think Mother's Day and Father's Day) or anniversaries to say you're thinking about them. 

If your friend/family member is mourning:

• Avoid all the awkward and unhelpful comments. You don't need to say things that make the loss OK. No need for "They are in a better place," "At least you got ___ years with them," "At least they aren't suffering anymore," "They wouldn't want you to be sad." Don't tell them about the stages of grief; that strict timeline has been debunked and leads people to feel they are grieving wrong.

• Just listen. Ask them how they are doing, and really want to know the answer. Let them vent, cry, scream or even sit in silence. You don't need to offer solutions or fix anything. 

• Keep in touch. People are often flooded with calls, cards, messages for the first month after a death. Then people start to go back to their lives and that contact drops. I recommend putting reminders in your calendar to get in touch so you don't forget. You can send them a message that you're thinking about them, see if they're up for hanging out or pass along a moment you thought about their loved one or a good memory you remembered recently. And don't expect a response. They read it and definitely appreciate it, but sometimes they aren't in a place to respond. 

• Help them keep their loved one alive. Ask your friend to tell you stories about the person. Share your memories. A big fear is that our loved one will be forgotten. We want to be reminded that this person's life mattered.

• Come up with laid-back ways to spend time together. Bring a movie over or some donuts. Go for a walk. Sometimes going out in public with a lot of people is too stressful. Don't ask what your loved one wants; they don't know what they need. Just be there, be a distraction if needed, and do easy activities together. 

If you're mourning:

• Be kind to yourself. You will be consumed by your grief. You will think about your loved one constantly. It's natural and OK!

• Find a grief group, individual therapy or others you can meet with that have similar experiences. You'll feel less alone in your grief and have a person who is solely there to listen. I found a lot of comfort knowing I had that set hour of time where I could be fully in my grief and that was OK. Finding a group with similar experiences eliminates the awkwardness you might find with your peers. You can talk about your lives with people who know they can't fix it and just listen.

• Find ways to bring your loved one to life in your daily routine. Place some of their possessions in places you can see them. Tell people stories about your loved one, especially stories that show off their personality and humor. Make their favorite meals and talk about your memories when you share it with others. 

• Cherish the items you have that remind you of their love for you. My mom didn't leave any kind of "goodbye" letter, and by the time we knew she was really dying, she wasn't able to communicate with us to talk about those things. I went back and found letters, notes, emails and voicemails from her, in which she expressed how much she loved me, how proud she was, what she saw for my future. Those notes are a major comfort when I am craving my mom's love again. 

Everyone:

Death can be so unexpected. Even when you get a scary diagnosis, it's tough to talk about. I think everyone should think about creating a "legacy letter" before a tragedy hits. A legacy letter is a place for you to put down how you feel about all your loved ones, what you've learned during your life and how you want people to remember you. Think about the questions you'd ask loved ones you never met or didn't have enough time with. Create a document that shares those things for future generations. 

You don't need to hide it away until your death. It could be a great opportunity to talk about your life with loved ones and make end-of-life less fearful. 

Additional resources:

• Modern Loss
• Books Emily connected with: "The Long Goodbye""Tiny Beautiful Things""The Rules of Inheritance"
• Excited for the possibility of this organization: The Dinner Party
• Trying journaling your experience: Here are some prompts to start with