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the Class of 2020’s grief

The whole world is grieving in a way right now, but the grief may be particularly unique for high school seniors who were just about to graduateThis year there is no prom, no senior trip, no graduation ceremony, and no yearbook signing. This mixes in among countless other traditional events that seniors have spent their whole high school experience looking forward to. Added to this, there are concerns that maybe even their college orientations and other summer plans have to be cancelled.

Graduating now may feel especially anticlimactic for the class of 2020, leaving them with a lot of open wounds and lack of closure. The coronavirus has separated them during a time that they can’t get back. Their grief is accentuated by that of their parents who are experiencing their own losses of how much they want to celebrate this milestone with their young adults. A reward for both parent and child following many long years of teaching life skills, fighting over homework, and riding a roller coaster of emotions. This year though, there won’t be hundreds of students gathering in their caps and gowns, posing for pictures in the auditorium.

For many, they didn’t even get to say goodbye to teachers or friends. When they left on their last day of school, they never imagined it was truly their last day to walk those halls. Most people remember their last days of high school. Many well-meaning people across the country have even taken to Facebook and posted their senior photos in solidarity, as a sign of support. While the intention may have been good, it can end up leaving high school seniors feeling even more left out. This weeks blog focuses on this group of resilient young people as they cope with the challenges that the coronavirus and its treatments have placed on them.

Honoring Feelings 

High school seniors are still developing, still figuring out who they are in the world and how they want to show up. This situation is difficult for even the most well-adjusted adult to deal with, let alone young ones who may just be learning what “adulting” means. If you happen to be among the high school seniors whose lives have been uprooted and find yourself looking at this blog, you likely know you’re not alone (other people are in the same boat), but that doesn’t necessarily make you feel much better. Just because the boat is full doesn’t mean that you want to be taking this voyage. Whatever emotions are coming up for you, it’s okay. It’s normal. If you don’t know how you feel, that’s normal too. Emotions likely change from day to day, from minute to minute.

Common feelings that come up when a crisis strikes:
  • Shock
  • Fear
  • Anger
  • Denial
  • Numbness
  • Depression/sadness
  • Hopelessness
  • Grief
  • Confusion

Part of honoring feelings may include journaling about them, or talking about them with a trusted friend or adult. Ignoring feelings is usually what makes them linger or intensify, facing them and working through them is part of the grieving (and healing!) process. 

What Not To Say And What to Do! 

Not having a high school graduation ceremony (among other festivities) after working so hard can be a really touchy subject, thus when we’re talking about this to young people it is really important to be aware of the impact of our words. Saying things like: 

You’ll certainly have a story to tell your kids!

You’re getting a break! 

Can be hugely invalidating, even if you’re trying to lighten the mood. The pandemic taking away important life experiences likely isn’t a story that they want to tell their (potential) future kids. And being cooped up at home doesn’t always feel like a break; having to finish classes online with spotty Internet and being unable to be physically near friends can take a toll on mental health. Let alone, the very real possibility that they may also be experiencing the illness or death of loved ones as we progress through this pandemic.

Instead, try to be the best listener that you can. Acknowledge the high schooler’s feelings as valid, no matter what they might be. Don’t correct their perceptions, discount their hurts or give any “at least” based speeches intended to make them feel better. Offer up opinions if they are asked for. Sometimes they simply need you to be present, acknowledging that the situations sucks and that it is out of all of our control, but that they don’t have to go through this alone.

How to Cope 

You’ve lost something: a tradition, time with your friends, time with your teachers—time that you can’t get back. There will likely be grief associated with that. There are typically five stages of grief: Denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. Though it is beyond the scope of this blog to go in depth with each of them, know that these stages need not be experienced in order (if at all), but it can be helpful to try to identify where you might fall to know what coping strategies might be best for you. Dealing with uncertainty can be challenging. Below you’ll find some ideas for managing being quarantined as a high school senior.

  • Keep on a schedule
  • Stay connected
  • Move your body
  • Exercise
  • Allow yourself to be hopeful

Expanding on these points, it can be hard to drag yourself out of bed and you may feel like what’s the point? But keeping yourself on a regular sleep schedule as well as other parts of your daily routine (to the best of your ability) can really aid in maintaining a stable mood. You may be physically separated from friends, but try your best to stay connected, whether that’s through online gaming, Facetime, Zoom, or some other platform. Lean on each other; you have similar experiences and can usually relate better than the “adults” in your lives. But don’t rule out those adults, they may not know exactly how you feel but they can be great supports and offer guidance, feedback, or a listening ear when needed. Consider talking to trusted family members, friend’s parents, church members, or teachers!

Though you may not be able to go to the gym like normal, try your best to keep exercise as a regular part of your daily or weekly routine. Moving your body is great for a mood boost. And finally, the one thing that is constant in life is change. This may feel like an immense loss, but notice how those feelings fluctuate as well as what you are hopeful for. This could include hope about starting at college in the fall, regardless of the format, etc. Hope for reconnecting with friends in person, hanging out at Sheetz, going to the movies or concerts again, and anything else that you miss during this time.

We’re Here For You 

Whether you are a high school senior or a parent of one during this pandemic, the stress and feelings of loss can be a lot to handle. Angelus is here for you through your process of grief. Schedule an appointment with Angelus today for support through these times of uncertainty and for tips on how to handle and process such a unique loss.  A new normal will emerge at some point, you will continue along your path in life—and become even stronger.

Blog Credit: Natalie Drozda, MA, LPC is a PH.D student in Counseling Education and Supervision at Duquesne University & therapist at Angelus Therapeutic Services