Young Adult Reactions to Death in Literature and in Life

By DeMinco, Sandrea | Adolescence, Spring 1995 | Go to article overview

Young Adult Reactions to Death in Literature and in Life


DeMinco, Sandrea, Adolescence


Adolescence is characterized by contradictions. Although teenagers want to be heard and understood, they are often reluctant to express themselves. Although they have questions about acceptable ways to show grief, they may not want to be told how to do so. They will want assurance that they are grieving normally, but they need acknowledgement that their experience and expression are unique to them. Coping with separations, especially those caused by death, and healing reconnections with peers, family, and adults crucially influence how well adolescents learn to balance conflicting needs of isolation and intimacy.

To ease the stress of grief and lessen long-term effects, it is helpful for adults to recognize normal grief reactions, what adolescents understand about death, and how their developmental tasks can interfere with the healing process. Reading young adult literature that has death as a theme can expose adults to normal adolescent reactions, enabling them to understand the impact of trauma and identify corrective responses. Most importantly, reading their literature provides safe access to the frequently unapproachable world of the adolescent.

Reactions to Grief

Recent research views grief as an "oscillatory process in which the bereaved can experience a variety of feelings and emotions, both positive and negative simultaneously. . . . Although the most difficult time is often early in bereavement, the interventionist must be prepared to address a variety of reactions at any point within the adjustment process" (Trunnell, Caserta, & White, 1992, pp. 275, 279). In adolescents the "great variety of reactions" is possible within one individual in one day. To provide guidelines for discriminating common from uncommon grief, adults should be aware of, but not limited to, a frequently recognized sequence: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. These are described in Books to Help Children Cope with Separation and Loss (Bernstein & Rudman, 1989) where attention is also paid to related emotions of shock, guilt, embarrassment, fear, curiosity, the need to master, and sadness. This book includes summaries of other fiction and nonfiction appropriate for ages three to sixteen. Further insight is provided in How it Feels When a Parent Dies (Krementz, 1981) and Learning to Say Goodbye (LeShan, 1976), in which adolescents and children inform readers about their personal responses to grief.

Perceptions of Death and Developmental Tasks

From about the age of ten, children understand the permanence and universality of death, and that it is governed by certain laws of nature (Bernstein & Rudman, 1989). Children twelve years of age and over are also able to ponder life (Cohn, 1987) and death's more enduring and complex repercussions (Glass, 1990). A young adult's reactions to death and its aftermath may be similar to that of an adult but "with fewer resources and abilities and less maturity to deal with them" (Glass, 1990, p. 160). This lack of coping skills is overlaid by their main developmental task of balancing role confusion with "the struggle to establish an identity that . . . accommodates individual paths to the expectations of society and family" (Satinover & Bentz, 1992, p.32). To test their images of self as independent from those of their families or peers, they may resist the authority of their closest affiliations - parents and school. They may withdraw, but at the same time be aware of the need to form intimate relationships and to care for others (Erikson, 1968), which also contributes to identity formation (Brown & Gilligan, 1992).

Issues surrounding separation and connection take on universal dimensions when young adults experience the death of a loved one. Unfortunately, adolescents commonly report a lack of support and disappointment at not receiving help from adults at this time (Obrien, Goodenow, & Espin, 1991). Bewilderment and frustration over conflicting needs combined with inexperience may inhibit self-expression and requests for help, resulting in prolonged periods of anger and denial. …

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