Young adults around the world are experiencing grief and loss due to the COVID-19 pandemic, new research reveals, despite few having directly experienced the death of someone close.
A new study focusing on college students’ experiences with the pandemic points to a growing burden of grief and loss. The results highlight that young adults today are struggling with “losses in life, not of life”. These ‘shadow losses’ are not discussed and remain unknown and unaddressed by officials and healthcare providers. However, they could mark the current generations of young adults for a very long time to come.
Shadow losses are grief-inducing experiences that do not involve death. Losing touch with your family and friends, missing important social events or opportunities, are all examples of shadow losses.
A gentle sorrow
The authors hope that such results will help officials and healthcare providers better help young adults to adjust to their experiences during the pandemic, and the ones that will come after. These results were collected as part of class assignments asking students to reflect on the earliest and most significant losses they experienced due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
“We wanted the students to emphasize what they’re feeling and how they’re coping,” said Raven Weaver, assistant professor in Washington State University’s Department of Human Development, and first author of the study. “We as a society don’t often talk about this, but there is progress in normalizing conversations around death, loss, and grief.”
“The idea of self-disenfranchisement was very common,” “They would say things like ‘It was a loss, but not a death, so it shouldn’t be a big deal.’ There’s a sense that we shouldn’t grieve smaller losses. But we need to acknowledge that talking about smaller losses is a healthy response and can benefit our mental health.”
Several participants mentioned feeling grief following the death of someone close to them, but most responses fell into the scope of ‘shadow losses’. This is a term coined by thanatologist Cole Imperi that refers to the grief caused by the loss of important experiences or opportunities. The results, as Weaver explains, also show that students tended to minimize the importance of these shadow losses to their mental health, despite the impact these had on their overall wellbeing.
The responses were collected from the stories 86 students submitted as part of the courses Weaver and her co-authors teach at the Washington State University and the University of Wisconsin. These courses — one, for example, is the HD 360: Death and Dying course — traditionally have a similar project dealing with death-related grief, but the authors wanted to capture a clearer snapshot of other kinds of loss that people experienced during the pandemic.
One of the major themes that emerged, they report, is that the students encountered huge challenges in communicating with loved ones in a “normal” way, and this had a profound effect on their well-being. Another large impact was caused by the loss of social interactions and of opportunities in education.
“It was difficult reading students’ experiences of not being able to say goodbye in person, of visiting a nursing home and talking through a window, or only talking via technology,” Weaver said. “But talking about these experiences helps people. That’s what we’re working toward.”
Grief, the paper explains, is a natural response caused both by tangible and intangible losses (the loss of a loved one vs. losses in social activity or security, for example). The authors cite previous research stating that for every death caused by the pandemic, an estimated nine people grieved. Their goal was to attempt to quantify the effects of intangible losses during this time, especially as “young adults reported higher levels of depression, anxiety, and post-traumatic stress disorder symptoms compared to pre-pandemic levels”.
All in all, the paper concludes that young adults experienced “substantive loss” during the pandemic, including missing out on important events that constitute developmental milestones, loss of contact with their friends and family, and the loss of opportunities regarding education and career development.
These factors should be taken into account by officials and healthcare providers, the paper adds, as they have a sizeable effect on the development and well-being of entire generations caught by the pandemic during a critical time in their lives.
The paper “Young adults’ experiences with loss and grief during COVID-19” has been published in the journal Death Studies.