NEWS

Young Adults Are Coping With 'Shadowloss' in the Pandemic, Study Finds

young Black woman looking lonely

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Key Takeaways

  • Shadowlosses describe losses in life, rather than of life and can look like missing out on major life events, estrangement or losing a job.
  • A recent study found that young adults are struggling to cope with shadowlosses during the pandemic.
  • Allowing space to grieve losses both big and small not only validates our feelings but makes for a healthier future.

While one of the most devastating results of the COVID-19 pandemic has certainly been loss of life, experiences like loss of academic and job opportunities, social outlets and milestone celebrations also call for grieving.

But the reality is that these "shadowlosses" can feel less deserving of that grief. The term shadowloss, coined by Cincinnati-based thanatologist Cole Imperi, describes losses in life, rather than of life and can include experiences like divorce, infertility, estrangement, getting fired unexpectedly, getting ghosted or a significant medical diagnosis. These events can threaten well-being and derail current or future plans.

During a time of global grieving, it's tough to refrain from comparing what we've lost. A recent study exploring the experience of grief during the pandemic found that young adults are most commonly coping with shadowloss, but tend to minimize their experiences, which can be harmful to mental health.

The Research

For this qualitative study, a group of college students enrolled in courses studying death and dying were instructed to write about their earliest and most significant losses regarding Covid-19. Students wrote about coping strategies, shifting world views and new understandings of self, as well as barriers to coping.

The findings, published in the journal Death Studies, reveal that, while some young adults are coping with the death of a loved one, the most prevalent losses felt by these individuals relate to education, social outlets, employment and social events or milestones. Students mentioned feeling the loss of missing opportunities for internships, study abroad programs and celebrating 21st-birthday-parties.

Raven Weaver, Study Researcher

Too often, these types of losses are not socially acknowledged, which may deprive individuals of receiving adequate support and opportunity to adapt to change.

— Raven Weaver, Study Researcher

While these experiences may seem less troublesome than losing a loved one, they still have a major impact on a person's life. But in these situations, people often dismiss their grief to focus on feeling grateful that the loss wasn't "worse." Researchers refer to this as "disenfranchized grief," which occurs when the loss isn't considered "legitimate or significant" and therefore isn't socially acknowledged.

"[Our research] revealed a tension among many who felt their losses were not as significant as grieving loss of life," says study researcher Raven Weaver, assistant professor at Washington State University. "Rather, the losses they experienced related to their education and their social life. Too often, these types of losses are not socially acknowledged, which may deprive individuals of receiving adequate support and opportunity to adapt to change."

Comparing Grief

It's important to note one limitation of the study is its sample size—data was collected from only 86 individuals. Despite this, Los-Angeles-based clinical psychologist Tala Johartchi, PsyD, who specializes in working with young adults and college-aged students, says the findings are consistent with her own clinical experience.

Tala Johartchi, PsyD

 When we allow time to process rather than avoid our sadness, we are able to move through the grieving process more productively, which leads to validation of our feelings and healthier outcomes.

— Tala Johartchi, PsyD

Many of Johartchi's clients have struggled with the impact of Covid-19 on their school and social lives. And she notes that the desire to compare experiences of grief to those of others is common. It's normal to seek confirmation that what we're experiencing is normal, but it isn't necessarily helpful.

"Comparing our grief can lead to invalidation of our own experiences and loss and forces us to begin questioning our own responses to a loss," Johartchi says. "When we begin feeling bad about feeling bad it creates more pain for us. Grief is complicated, and comparing only exacerbates more pain and a longer grieving process." 

Invalidating these experiences can keep us from processing those emotions and moving forward with our lives. Grieving is an important emotional tool that Johartchi urges clients to avoid putting limits on. Ignoring grief or trying to make it go away will likely only make it worse. So, she recommends grieving "with intention."

"I often suggest creating time and space to grieve daily, weekly," she says. "Whether it is to take 10 minutes each day to journal and write about what you are feeling and experiencing or listening to a song that reminds of the object of loss. When we allow time to process rather than avoid our sadness, we are able to move through the grieving process more productively, which leads to validation of our feelings and healthier outcomes." 

As we move forward in the pandemic and beyond, it's clear that making space for grief both big and small will be crucial in bolstering mental health.

"Whether it is the loss of life or the loss of what was perceived as ‘normal,’ we have experienced disruptions to the social fabric of life," Weaver says. "As a society, I hope we seize the opportunity to normalize the conversation about death and dying, grief and loss because these topics are a part of the lived experience."

What This Means For You

We've all experienced loss during the pandemic, and any type of loss can trigger grief. It's important to allow space for grieving and processing those emotions, even if it's loss of experience rather than a loss of a loved one.

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2 Sources
Verywell Mind uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. O’Connor M. Grief: A brief history of research on how body, mind, and brain adaptPsychosom Med. 2019;81(8):731-738. doi:10.1097/psy.0000000000000717

  2. Weaver RH, Srinivasan EG, Decker A, Bolkan C. Young adults’ experiences with loss and grief during COVID-19Death Stud. 2021:1-12. doi:10.1080/07481187.2021.1984339