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How to Help Your Kid Deal with the Loss of Graduation

How to Help Your Kid Deal with the Loss of Graduation

The class of 2020 is experiencing the loss of momentous moments like graduation and prom. Here's how they can cope.

It was supposed to be the greatest semester of their lives. The last four years had landed your teen here, where their hard work was finally going to pay off—awards ceremonies, honors, graduation parties, and the earned right to slack off. There would be yearbooks, prom, future plans, graduation ceremonies—and now as a result of Coronavirus, these ceremonies are canceled. Seniors in both high school and college are experiencing the loss of graduation and associated celebrations as a result of social distancing efforts, and it has devastated many of them. How can we help our kids deal with the sudden loss of these earned celebrations and the opportunity to properly close one chapter to move onto the next?

“It’s difficult to think about moving onto another stage of our lives without attaining the same closure we had expected," says Madison Trafton, a senior at Irvington High School in Westchester.  Her classmate Bella Smith agrees. “I think the hardest part about this experience is that we didn’t know what was coming and I think a lot of us took the beginning of our senior year for granted.”

Brendon Hanson at Shaker Heights High School in Cleveland is crushed he won’t get to experience prom and graduation, which he considered the penultimate events of his senior year. “They were the things I most looked forward to since I never truly enjoyed school,” he laments. 

All over the country, seniors and their families are feeling a similar loss. We spoke to a few experts about how to cope. 

Acknowledge the Loss

Many psychologists agree that the best way to begin the process of healing is to admit and deal with the significant feelings caused by the cancellation of such a momentous occasion.

Think of it as the ending of a romantic relationship or friendship—when it was not by your choice, says Dr. Melissa Robinson-Brown, licensed clinical psychologist and founder of Renewed Focus Psychology Services, aka Dr. Mel. “It’s devastating because you lack control over the situation and that sense of grief becomes exacerbated because there’s no way to experience what you thought was truly meant to be.”

First and foremost, seniors should realize that their sadness and resentment are completely normal, Colleen M. Jacobson, PhD, clinical psychologist and the chair of the psychology department at Iona College, says. She also suggests that many will go through the five stages of grief: denial, bargaining, anger, depression and, finally, acceptance

One good way to process these extreme feelings, Dr. Mel says, is by expressing them: write in a journal; talk to a friend or a mental health professional. “They can’t just be pushed away or suppressed.” Also, trying to understand that everyone will react differently. “Don’t be influenced by how others are coping if it doesn’t fit you,” she notes.

Parents should let their kids know that their feelings are acceptable. “You have to say, yeah it’s really disappointing,” says Dr. Kathryn Smerling, a family psychiatrist on the Upper East Side. “Tell them what they’re feeling now makes complete and total sense,” Dr. Mel adds. “It’s also important to communicate that they can take whatever time and space they need to be able to manage these emotions.”

And parents should remember to stay in the moment. “Many parents don’t want to see their kids in pain, so they try to make it all better or suggest alternatives,” Dr. Mel says. Instead, they should “allow them to express whatever emotions they feel and validate the heck of them.” Also, don’t try to problem solve or help them to find a different perspective until they are ready to do so, Jacobson adds.

RELATED: How to Ease Anxiety for Kids During the Coronavirus

Grieve and Connect with Peers

One unique element of the current situation is that we are all in it together. We are all going through some sort of loss or disappointment, and therefore students can share their grief with their friends and classmates. Jacobson encourages students to reach out and stay connected with teachers, coaches and mentors during this time. “While many of us are feeling Zoomed out,” she says, “these technologies are allowing us to connect while apart.”

It’s also important for parents to remind their kids that they too are experiencing loss. After all, seeing their kids graduate was going to be a momentous occasion for them as well. They should explain that they also feel powerless, says Dr. Smerling. “And they should tell their kids that we’re just going to have to live without answers—which sometimes is the best thing to do because it helps us be present.”

Plan a Virtual Graduation Celebration

While not everyone will be ready to replace the real thing with a virtual alternative, it might help to brainstorm some meaningful ways to celebrate. According to Dr. Smerling, now is a good time to come up with a creative new ritual. “This is an opportunity to reinvent or create something that you never dreamed possible,” she says. This could be a gift or a plan for a future trip. The message is: “You’re just postponing it. You’re not taking it away.”

Maybe your kid is interested in a virtual prom (they can get dressed up and have a special dinner; or create a virtual dance party with an online DJ.) According to Jacobson, “this may not be the prom that was planned, but it’s definitely one to remember always, talk about at that 20th reunion, and tell children one day.” They could do the same with a graduation ceremony—with cap and gown and family involved. Or maybe they’d prefer to mark the occasion at home with their family. 

Whatever you and your child decide to plan should be played out with passion: send out invitations or announcements; go shopping online. Hanson did a “promprosal” for his girlfriend in which he rode his bike to her house and asked her to the prom via sign from an appropriate distance away. 

And make sure to let your kids take the lead, says Dr. Mel. “This is not the time to push your own agenda.”

Create Some Kind of Closure

One of the biggest issues for seniors not getting to experience the end of their high school or college careers is that there is no real closure—and many are yearning for that. For some, this may take the form of a virtual celebration but Dr. Smerling suggests another idea: make a video. “It’s something you’ll be able to remember and show your kids and grandkids—how this was what happened, and it was a very unusual period of life for all of us. “

Some college students are choosing to stay an extra year in their college town so that that can take the time to plan for the following year, and to spend more time with their friends. Dr. Smerling suggests high school students do something similar by planning a meeting in June—with or without the school’s help—when they can share their plans for their future with each other. “That would be a remarkably healthy possibility,” she says, “but of course only if that’s in everyone’s best interest health-wise.”

Finally it may be helpful to keep in mind that the real thing is often not as great as the fantasy. For example, that graduation brunch with grandma and cousin Jim is often fraught with tensions—and maybe missing it isn’t all that bad after all. 

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Shana Liebman


Shana Liebman is the features editor of NYMP. She’s a writer and editor who has worked for magazines including New York MagazineSalon, and Travel & Leisure—and she is the mom of two energetic little boys.

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