A cultural shift in grief

Emily Kaiser, one of the most talented people in an MPR newsroom full of talented people, is right. Our newsroom is old enough now that announcements of the death of the parent of one of us is a pretty common occurrence. We’re probably not that different than a lot of companies, which is why her splendid essay in Washingtonian magazine this week should be required reading in the American workplace.

Death in the office is usually handled the same way. Someone shows up at your cubicle holding a manila folder and your heart sinks because (a) someone has probably died and (b) you have to figure out who you’re going to pass the folder on to after you scrawl words which, try as you might to be poignant, almost always end up as “sorry for your loss.”

Our job as consolers too often ends there.

Her mother died when she was only 56. That, obviously, is not how it’s supposed to work.

Her essay provides all of us in the workplace — especially Boomers — with an important lesson about the cultural shift that’s taking place. Grief is different for a generation that is tethered longer.

Everyone has read the oft-cited stats about how millennials like me have put off marriage and children, the two big things so many of our parents embraced as twentysomethings. But Jeffrey Arnett, a professor at Clark University in Worcester, Massachusetts, who studies millennials, told me there’s an emotional aspect to this cultural shift that’s lesser known. Arnett says millennials are going through a completely new life stage he calls “emerging adulthood.”

By the time we reach our early to mid-twenties, we may have graduated from college and gotten our first real jobs, but emotionally we’re not growing up as quickly as our mothers and fathers did. 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. 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.

This change has largely been positive, Arnett said: “It’s made that relationship honestly closer for longer than I think it’s ever been before.”

But as I’ve now learned, there’s a downside, too, one that’s tied to actuarial math. As more people stay in emerging adulthood longer, more of them will lose their parents at a stage of life where science—not to mention friends and neighbors—doesn’t quite know how to understand the psychological implications.

“You still need your mom,” Arnett said. “You needed your mom more than she needed you.”

He was right. Because I didn’t have kids or a husband or any real, serious adult obligations besides my job, it wasn’t like some switch went off after my mom died and I suddenly felt I was the one who had to be the grownup now. For all practical purposes, I was still a kid myself.

It was no wonder I wanted everyone to treat my grief like a child’s.

Do yourself a favor and take a few minutes to read her essay.

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