Grieving Graduation: Helping Teens Cope with the Loss of Milestone Markers
As the weather starts to warm up and the academic year starts to wind down, schools, parents and teens are searching for ways to preserve a sense of celebration and meaning during self-quarantine. In addition to the abrupt end of in-person classes and sports seasons, this new normal comes with a cancellation of many celebratory activities for high-school seniors, including senior week, prom, and graduation. All of these events constitute rituals, symbolizing transitions into adulthood (1). It can be challenging for teens and families to navigate this change, below are a list of suggestions for coping during this time:
Acknowledge the loss. In the sea of changes that have occurred due to COVID-19 it can be easy to minimize the importance of losses of special events, often in attempts to cope with them. Conversely, acknowledging the significance of the loss and naming the painful feelings surrounding it can be more effective for coping (2). Keeping in mind that grief is a normal response to loss, can help parents empathically listen, without immediately trying to fix what’s hard (1).
Connect with others. For both parents and teenagers, it can be helpful to talk to those who are experiencing similar frustrations, and be honest with feelings about the loss (1). These conversations can help in both providing support around the loss, reflection on memories of highschool, and hopes for the future.
Plan a small day of marker, and reschedule. While activities at home cannot, and should not, be expected to replace rituals like graduation ceremonies, they can help mark the occasion (1). This can include celebrations in the home, where friends and family can witness the achievement virtually. Picking a later date to have a larger celebration can also help communicate that this is an accomplishment worth really celebrating.
Help look for meaning. Finding meaning has been referred two as the final stage of grief (3). Meaning can come from looking for the positive in difficult times, such as emphasizing their resilience in working through these hard times (2). Finding meaning often includes finding ways to help others (2). This might look like helping teens reframe the loss of graduation ceremonies as a means of helping keep others safe (4).
The cancelling of big events that mark milestones is a real loss to grieved. Acknowledging, empathizing, and validating the loss, in addition to marking accomplishments, can help teens cope with grief and start to make meaning of the situation.