Mourning your 20s? Here are some practical ways to cope with pandemic grief


From grief to growth.

As we inch closer to the two year anniversary of this once-in-a-century event, it doesn’t seem to get any easier, does it? Sure, we adapt. Picnics are the new bars and going for a walk is the new spin class but there’s still a thick blanket of grief enveloping our lives. 

Of course, everyone in the world has lost time, memories and experiences recently. Grandparents have missed grandchildren being born, weddings have been rescheduled (again… and again), and retirees who saved to spend their golden years travelling are stuck on the couch. 

Interested to hear how others navigate the world? Head to our Life section.

Being in my mid-twenties though, I can’t help but feel cheated by the time that’s ticking away. The years of travelling, meeting new people over cheap wine in the corner of a house party, even working in an office, ideas flying across the room verbally rather than flinching as another Slack notification pings my already frayed nerves.

Obviously, I’m biased but hearing wild stories of my parents’ and grandparents’ youth juxtaposed against scrolling on my phone or reading a book on a Saturday night is a hard pill to swallow, even when it is saving lives. 

While Australians have a huge amount of safety and privilege – and have largely avoided the long COVID and deaths that the rest of the world has seen – how do we grieve the time that we’ve lost? 

Collective grief 

Like ‘unprecedented’, ‘social distancing’ and ‘this is why, from 11.59 tonight there will be five reasons to leave home’, ‘collective grief’ may be a term you’ve heard a lot recently. 

Mary Hoang, author of Darkness is Golden: A Guide to Personal Transformation & Dealing with Life’s Messiness and the founder of psychology practice The Indigo Project, explains that ‘collective grief’ is when a whole community (or the world in this case) experiences a significant change or loss. 

“The pandemic that we’re all experiencing, has led to a collective loss of normality. We don’t know what our lives are going to look like moving forward,” Mary says. 

“I really feel for young people who I think are suffering the most because of job losses and insecurity. It’s also such a rite of passage to go overseas and travel and live and work for a little while. And we just don’t know what that looks like for young people in the next few years.”

Hearing Mary say that young people are having a particularly tough time is validating in a world where we’ve been told millennials and Gen Zs are entitled, avocado-eating slackers. 

Coping mechanisms 

We know younger people are more likely to work in the insecure gig economy, live in rented accommodation and experience job shortages but how do we deal with all of that as well as ongoing public health measures and restrictions?

“Having a good cry, a good scream, a good punch of a punching bag is actually really important for us to acknowledge the feelings that we do have,” Mary tells me.

“​​Especially for young people, I would really recommend using music to tap into emotions that they may be avoiding right now. And that’s, I think, the perfect conduit to feeling some of the emotion and it will give them a really beautiful release,” she says. 

“We can always throw on a different type of track afterwards and have a boogie, but I think, to really acknowledge the loss and the pain is what stops us from maybe coping in ways that can seem unhealthy at the moment, like lots of drinking or drugs or overeating or not eating.” 

While Mary advocates for more mindful coping mechanisms, she also doesn’t pass judgement on those doing anything they can to get by.  

Toxic positivity doesn’t help anyone 

Like hand sanitiser and masks, toxic positivity has also been a constant companion during this pandemic. Toxic positivity – where people use faux positivity instead of listening to or feeling their true emotions – isn’t useful to anyone who is mourning nearly two years worth of lost experiences.

Mary believes that as a country, Australians are very good at dishing out toxic positivity. “We’re always given this idea that we live in a very lucky country and that we feel somehow undeserving of feeling devastated by what’s happening,” she says. 

“I would say to people who are having those thoughts, ‘Your feelings are valid, if you feel sad, and you feel lost, your loss is valid. It’s not the time for comparison. It just completely takes you away from honouring your own experience, which is real and significant.’” 

This is real grief

In the same way we give people space when a loved one passes on, Mary believes we can apply some of those rules to grieving our old lives. “Why should it be any different whether it’s a person that’s passed, or we’re really feeling the loss of our old lives and identities?”

The good news? Feeling like you’re taking one step forwards and two steps backwards in grieving the years shaved off your youth is actually a sign of growth. 

“Young people are already like, ‘Who am I? How do I fit into this world? Am I good enough? What’s my work identity?’ That was hard enough before the pandemic and now, maybe there are less opportunities and choices.

“Young people have got to try to salvage the dregs of something or really dig deep to believe that even though they don’t know what’s coming, it’s going to be okay. And that takes a lot of inner strength.”

For the last few months, when close friends ask me how I am, I’ve been describing a washing machine or explaining that I feel like I’m getting dunked under a wave, watching my twenties float away into the sea. Mary suggests reimagining this visual as a swirling galaxy, telling me “it’s more expansive”. 

Now that lockdown is finally lifting (and hopefully for good this time) let’s try to remember this: us young people aren’t drowning, we’re swirling galaxies and when the stars (eventually) stop spinning, perhaps a brand new universe will appear.

If you’re having a tough time right now, don’t be afraid to reach out for help. Call Lifeline on 13 11 14.

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