Grieving at a Young Age

by Lauren Muscarella

Lauren & her Mom

My mother was diagnosed with breast cancer when I was 5 years old. I never knew much about her prognosis and she didn’t look sick, and almost never acted sick. The first time I noticed a change in my mother I was home from college for a wedding, four months later I visited for Thanksgiving, by then my mother had lost her hair and her mobility. The transformation shocked my system. When she passed away one month later, I was stunned.  I left the funeral and flew back to start my spring semester the next day, I was only 20 years old and grief hadn’t entered my vocabulary.

It was subconscious but I somehow completely avoided dealing with the loss of my mother for almost three years. The word advice can have a bad connotation so I won’t give advice but here is my suggestion for dealing with a death;  accept that you’ll make mistakes,  commit to figuring out how to cope,  love and respect the people who love you,  be patient and over time you’ll gain clarity.

Bottling up your feelings isn’t right or wrong but when your feelings rear their heads, it’s inevitable that they will need to be dealt with.

Not knowing how to cope is understandable. Being young we’re not experienced with grief.  Even in circumstances where we see it coming, it’s hard to prepare for something so heavy.  It’s hard to deal with all of the emotions that come along with such a situation.  It’s even harder to know the right way to handle it. My deflection of choice was conformity.  In May of 2007 I was graduating from American University with a Cum laude on my diploma and a job waiting for me at an established publisher in town. If that sounds cool,  it’s less cool in practice but it is the societal standard and presumption of what you’re supposed to do.

Before my mom passed away I was a little wild. I went out five nights a week and let my developing frontal lobe rule. After she passed I took her words, “You can’t stop living because I do,” very seriously. I became a much more conscientious student. I opted for an internship leaving my fledgling career as part health food store cashier part yoga instructor behind. Then I pushed my friends away. In my last year of school my roommate and I were studying one night and I said something that offended her. She was upset I didn’t notice so she stopped talking to me. I was devastated because I thought we were such good friends. Normally I would have talked it out with her but I wasn’t feeling capable of a constructive conversation at that time so I let it fester. Eventually she moved out so my boyfriend and I moved in together. I had the full package: the diploma, the steady boyfriend and the job.

My graduation ceremony fell on Mother’s day. I was an anxious mess. I wanted everything to be perfect so of course everything went wrong. My hair color turned out heinous. The restaurants I picked fell flat. The directions I gave led to unprecedented traffic. And the party my brother threw started with me sitting on the bathroom floor crying because my hair, outfit and venue were “all wrong”. More likely I was crying because my mother wasn’t there. I missed her and I didn’t know how best to handle it.

After a year of grief counseling and a U-Haul out of my premature domesticity, I realized the two things that helped me most were simple but challenging. First of all, I had to take care of myself. Second, writing about the experience of losing my mom helped me figure out how I felt. That revelation led to, a blog I started to share my journey through loss and talk about how my mom was truly one of a kind. The response overwhelmed me. I became an available listener. Because I shared my experience of grief, people feel safe to tell me their story. Hearing other people’s stories is both cathartic for them and comforting for me. As a result I launched Trauma to Art (, a movement to encourage creative expression from those who have experienced loss. After the launch my theory was confirmed. Everyone’s experience is unique but we all share a common problem: how do we cope?

(Teenagers and young adults often walk through their grief differently than older adults. Lauren’s story shares some of what she experienced and I encourage young people to visit her blog and share your feelings because peer to peer support is often the very support we need.  ~ JoAnne Funch, Heartache To Healing)

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