Unit 5 -- Developmental Issues #2
Late Adolescence through the Later Years

Grief in a Family Context --HPER F460/F560

Goals for this Unit

The intent of this unit is to extend the previous unit through stages of development in adulthood. In this unit, we explore the grief of later adolescence and adulthood, when the sense of one's self becomes stable and the individual explores and expands on that stabilized sense of self.


When we look at implications of adult development for our understanding of the grief process, we need to retain a certain degree of caution. Our understanding of grief is largely based on observations of and research on women (primarily widows and bereaved mothers). At the same time, much of our understanding of adult development is based on the development of men. Increasingly, arguments have been made that what is considered appropriate and normal development for males is not the same for females and, in fact, we may see some clashes between our expectations for "healthy" development and "healthy" grieving.



Kagan(Klein), H. (1998). The emergence of a new model: Parental grief as a normal response (pp. 113-123). In H. Kagan(Klein), Gili's book: A readjustment model of parental bereavement. Teachers College Press, Columbia University.

Kagan(Klein), H. (1998). The readjustment model of parental bereavement: Inward and outward steps (pp. 124-121). In H. Kagan(Klein),Gili's book: A readjustment model of parental bereavement. Teachers College Press, Columbia University.

Kagawa-Singer, J. (1994). Diverse cultural beliefs and practices about death and dying in the elderly. Gerontology and Geriatric Education, 15, 101-116.

Web Resources

Developmental Tasks for College Students 


Grief in Later Adolescence

In the previous unit, we looked at issues of earlier adolescence, when the adolescent is legally a minor and usually still living at home. Many of the same issues continue through later adolescence, while they continue to work to establish a secure sense of identity, separate from their parents. I include later adolescence in this unit because it often is assumed that, because someone legally reaches adulthood, he/she becomes an adult in every way, including the way in which he/she grieves, assumptions that can lead to problems.

Adolescence is a transitional stage between childhood and adulthood and adolescents very much feel the uncertainty of this transition. In a sense, adolescents want to be apart from and a part of their family. In later adolescence, this time continues to be a challenging one, for the adolescent as well as for others in his/her life. They must deal with physical, emotional, psychological, and relational changes in the lives of the adolescent. In the previous unit, we tended to focus on issues of earlier adolescence, up to the point at which the adolescent reaches legal adulthood. Later adolescence, extending through middle 20's will be given greater emphasis in this unit.

Tasks of early adulthood overlap those of late adolescence and this may lead to increased stress. The assigned reading from the Web, Developmental Tasks for College Students, describes developmental tasks that college students face. You may recognize that these tasks involve both those of adolescence (focusing on identity vs. confusion) and early adulthood (focusing on intimacy vs. isolation). Consider how they could influence and complicate the grief process during this time.

As was noted in the last unit, grief during later adolescence may evidence it in ways that are not recognized by others as grief. Antisocial or socially inappropriate behavior (especially if there is no recent history of such behavior) may actually be the expression of grief. Physical and social forces are also at work to encourage these types of behaviors. There may be an increase in sexual behavior or in the seriousness of the behavior. It may be that the adolescent is attempting to replace someone who has been lost or to fill a sense of emptiness after a loss. Another possibility is that this sexual activity actually fills a need to be nurtured and/or close to another. Because this is a socially acceptable (in some cases, the only socially acceptable) way for males to be held and be touched, they may feel a strong need for sexual contact. They may also seek the security of a continuing relationship with another person to avoid the feeling of loneliness that is tied to the loss.

Later adolescents may also engage in dangerous, possibly illegal activities, as a way of expressing their intense emotions. They may also use alcohol or drugs as a means of blocking out their emotions and thoughts about the loss.

Grief at this time may feel out of proportion to the loss; in fact, the person experiencing this maybe astonished by the intensity. One possible explanation is that the grief is not just for the immediate loss, but for prior losses that were not successfully resolved. Unresolved issues of childhood losses may be triggered at this time and grief that was delayed will emerge now. Issues that were believed to have been resolved at an earlier time will be considered from a new perspective and in the context of new life experiences.

Grief in Adulthood

Adulthood is a time for exploring and expanding the identity one has established in earlier stages of development and the timing of a loss, in terms of the adult life course, will affect the way in which the individual views the loss and interprets its meaning for him or her.

As I indicated above, our understanding of grief is based on adult grieving, so you should review the models presented in Unit 1 for an understanding of that. At the same time, remember that these models are normative, that is, they describe grief as a general phenomenon, but do not match exactly with the grief of individuals.

Osterweis and Townsend (1988) summarized adult bereavement as including the following:

Another important point to keep in mind about adult grief is this: Although it seems that adult would have a full conceptual understanding of death (e.g., it is final, irreversible, universal), this is not necessarily so. Writing from a psychotherapeutic perspective, Beverly Raphael (1983) observed that adults engage in the following:

Probably because of the intensity of the loss and its impact on their assumptive world, these activities are far more likely with traumatic losses. Losses that occur out of sequence most often experienced as trauma. You may think of other examples of these; a partial list includes young widowhood, the death of one's child at any age, the death of one's wife at any age). We will discuss this in greater detail later in the semester, in the units on Complicated Grief in Families and Traumatic Loss and Grief.

Another factor that has is very much in evidence among adult grievers is guilt. This is particularly true among adult grievers. Miles and Demi (1986) identified six different manifestations of guilt among parents who have lost a child. Their grief seems to come from being helpless unable to protect their child from harm. The guilt they describe for parents often can be seen among other grievers and among those who are grieving losses other than those caused by death:

Finally, I would like, again, to point out that grief in adulthood is not restricted to loss to death. Divorce, for example, results in grief that is quite similar to that of a widow(er). Women relinquishing a child for adoption and the child are likely to experience grief. Adoptive parents for whom it was important to produce their own child must grieve the "death" of their wished-for biological child or the result can be that their adoptive child will become a replacement child for that imaginary biological child. If their spouse has been unfaithful, the partner must grieve the "death" of trust and of their image of their marriage. This list may have triggered some thoughts on your part about other sources of grief not related to death.

Some Factors Related to Adult Bereavement

Review of life of the deceased.

After a loss has taken place, adults often will engage in a review of the life of the deceased (or may feel deeply frustrated by the fact that they are unable to do this. Parents who have lost a child early in life or during pregnancy often express tremendous pain that their child has little or no history. As has been seen with other processes, reviews take place over and over, as new information is learned and new issues arise. An example of this can be seen in a man whose father died when he was very young. The son may find himself reviewing his father's life when he, the son, goes through important transitions, such as, when he too becomes a father. The review is not always a positive experience; the deceased may be vilified or sanctified, or both.

Financial implications of loss

Losses that occur in adulthood may involve family division of property. Arguments over things financial can cause a great deal of hostility among survivors. Spouses/parents may die intestate (i.e., without a will). They may distribute their estate unevenly, for reasons that may seem unfair to the survivors. Interestingly, arguments over property often are not about the objective value of the property, but are over symbolic meaning. Objects that are seen as providing a link to the deceased (i.e., "linking objects") hold a great deal of power for the bereaved and these objects may symbolize both positive and negative links.

The call to support

Bereaved adults may find themselves acting in the role of supporters for others they never anticipated needing this (e.g., being called to simultaneously provide support for their parent(s) and their child(ren) while also coping with their own loss). Earlier relationships between children and their parents are carried into adulthood. For example, a mother and her daughter may have established a pattern in which the daughter has felt judged by her mother. Conflict that occurs between the adult daughter and their mother over appropriate support behavior might compromise the ability of the daughter to provide that support

Gender as a issue

Gender is very much an issue for adult grievers. We will discuss gender in great detail in two weeks and will save our discussion for that time.

One loss, many griefs

With each loss, adults grieve for a variety of things. The simple fact that they maintain several roles in their families puts them in the position of actually grieving many losses. They might be grieving the loss of their spouse while also grieving the loss of their children's other parent. At the same time, they see that their children have lost a secure future, a loving parent, a mentor and they feel a sense of loss at that. We will discuss this in greater detail when we discuss Roles and Relationships.

In addition to experiencing multiple griefs, adults may be experiencing simultaneous crises in their lives at the time of their loss, which will affect their grief. For example, they might be concurrently coping with a grandparent who is increasingly incapacitated by Alzheimer's disease, downsizing at their place of employment, children who are growing increasingly independent and secretive.

Another way in which one loss can lead to many griefs is that previously unresolved losses likely will be unearthed by a later loss. The simple fact is that the longer one lives, the greater the opportunities to experience loss and if these losses are not resolved at the time they take place, they will be reexperienced when later losses occur. I would like to note an observations I've made from my own research: I don't believe that it is possible to completely resolve a loss at the time it occurs. We can only resolve it in relation to our present needs and understanding. When the loss involves a particularly important or valued person, we will reexperience past losses as they are meaningful to us in relation to our present needs (e.g., the loss of a parent will be reexperienced with each event in our lives where our parents "should" be there).

Adult Developmental Stages and Grief

Young Adulthood -- from 20 or 21 to 45

Middle Adulthood -- 40's through 60's

Late Adulthood -- age 55 and above

General Conclusions

Just as the grief of children and younger adolescents varies because of development, so too does grief vary among later adolescents and adults. The particular issues of loss that are relevant to each stage will influence the grief process of the individual.

The responsibilities of adulthood complicate the grief process, as they increase the likelihood that additional stressors will be added to their grief and that they will grieve multiple losses, their own and their grief for the losses of others important to them.

Earlier losses, to death and other causes, will be reexperienced as later losses occur in adulthood. Although they may learn coping skills that can be used to cope with later losses, adults who have experienced losses earlier in life may find unresolved aspects of the loss difficult to cope with, especially if they believed they had "gotten over that."

Questions for Discussion

Post your response to the following questions on the Class Discussion.

  1. Look at the list of tasks for college age individuals. What impact might a loss have on the ability of the individual to complete these tasks. What might another person do to facilitate successful completion of these tasks by someone who is bereaved?
  2. In the Lifestory Archive , read one of the lifestories (they all address adult grief). Keeping your class readings in mind, look at the grief described by the author of the lifestory. What are your thoughts on the author's grief? What types of coping strategies did he/she use?
  3. It has been suggested that, for many older adults, dying is not traumatic and is approached as a natural part of life and that it is not death that the elderly fear, but the potential of disability. What is your response to this? What can we learn from Kagawa-Singer's article about death and dying in diverse cultures? Is this information consistent or in conflict with your own observations? How?

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