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The year without graduation: To the class of 2020

What you're experiencing is called grief. Here's what a grief counselor has to say to you.

The year without graduation: To the class of 2020

This is the week the Governor of California called off the rest of the school year. Many states are following. This is not just the year of COVID-19.

This is the year without graduation.

That means 3.7 million high school seniors in the Class of 2020 are not going to wear their caps and gowns in May and June.

Let me speak to you seniors, if I may. (The rest of you should stay here, too. You need to get what they are losing).


You began the year with senior photos. Sports for the last time for your school. Performances in band, choir, theater, art. Maybe a class ring. Ordering your caps and gowns. Competitions in all the areas you students have been focused on for four years—debate, MUN, computers of all kinds (that many of us don't even think about, but marvel at your talents), science, robots, aeronautics. Some of you chose senior year to be the one to do an Education Abroad program. You shouldn't even be home right now.

Maybe you even went to the Midwinter Ball. You probably worried about the SAT or military entrance exams or how to ensure a smooth transition to community college or a specialty program. Maybe you were planning a big graduation party and then moving into a shared apartment with a best friend or for a road trip with a buddy. You were thinking about Ditch Day (and not getting caught), and Sunrise Brunch on graduation day. Grad Night and Prom. Signing yearbooks you can look back on at reunions when you are older than you can even imagine right now.

Some of you were going to be the first one in your family to graduate. Others were supposed to be valedictorian. Many of you earned medals and cords to mark exceptional study that you were going to drape around your neck in your cap and gown.

All the events that define your senior year. The last times with your friends before your lives change forever and you separate to go on your way into adulthood.

And all of that is now gone.

You are seeing your friends on screen (oddly enough encouraged by parents who were previously telling you to knock off the screen time) not in person. Your times to simply hang out have disappeared and you now have to wear a mask to even go outside. Rather than planning a graduation party and figuring out how to get your grandparents to attend, you now cannot see them because you are considered a possible carrier.

Because of a new virus nobody saw coming. A weird little ball with spikes all around it.

Yes, COVID-19 is dangerous. It's lethal. It's taking lives around the world. It's scary. Your parents and probably your grandparents have never seen anything like this. I am not going to minimize just how awful this pandemic is. It is going to change our communities and our world.

But right now—in this moment—let's talk about you. (And the rest of you, listen up!).

This virus stole your senior year. As I was thinking about writing this about the grief you are coping with (because that's what grief therapists do, we can't help it) I kept adding to the list of your losses. The one above is only a partial list. This virus stole major milestones and events from you. It took your time with your friends when you should be spending the most time with them, cementing those friendships for the rest of your lives. High school seniors aren't supposed to be home all the time. You are supposed to need your parents less and your outside relationships more.

And yet there you sit. School is on a computer. Teachers are online. And you are supposed to feel like doing your work while one thing after another has disappeared.

And now: graduation. That final moment. The pomp and circumstance. Friends and family telling you how proud they are of you. That hasn't happened since World War II. Even then, some students stayed for graduation before reporting to join the Armed Forces. It's a rite of passage that has never been taken away across an entire country.

How do you cope with that?

I've been seeing teens online for weeks. What I am hearing and seeing is you know you have just had a huge loss, and a whole lot of losses, but:

  • Some adults are minimizing your losses by comparing them to the deaths caused by COVID-19.
  • Many teens are reluctant to share how much this hurts (I've heard lots of other terms but this is a public blog, so I am keeping it clean) because they feel selfish or they don't want to stress parents who are already stressed by working from home or job loss or fears for friends and family.
  • Some teens don't have the words to express what this means to them.
  • Many of you are trying to cope by ignoring the emotional impact the losses are really having. Or don't want to share with friends in case the friends are not willing to say they are having a hard time too.

Rule Number One in grief is: We never ever compare losses. They are all equal if they matter to the person experiencing them.

Rule Number Two is: Nobody gets to tell you how to grieve.

Rule Number Three is: Your feelings are yours, and that makes them valid, even in a global pandemic.

Rule Number Four, specific to seniors in COVID-19: Not one person who is not a senior in the Class of 2020 has experienced this. Do NOT let anyone minimize it.

For those reading along, are we clear? This matters.

So, what can you do, Class of 2020?

  • Talk to your fellow seniors. Take a chance to share how awful this feels.
  • Hang out online more, not less.
  • Use some of the hangout time and alone time to look at where you are going. Our world has changed because of this global experience. All the options are on the table. Use all that creativity and all those skills that belong to only your generation and create what you want to do and how you want to do it.
  • Ask for space if you need it. I know your parents are happy to see more of you, but you need some space. I know one college student who had to come home who outfitted her little brother's old playhouse as a space for herself. It isn't big or luxurious, but it is away from her two brothers and her parents who are working from home in a small house.
  • Express it—write, draw, paint, create music, rap, dance, run. Express those feelings in a way that works for you. Not the way anyone else wants you to. This is your loss.
  • Make a scrapbook or journal of how much life has changed right now. Download the images of empty parks and cities and animals roaming free. This will never happen again, we all hope. Write about what you are missing, and what you might have been doing during the days as they pass.
  • As the month wears on, it will be time to regroup and take your big day and events back. Even if your school is not doing a July event, you and your friends and families can plan something to honor this transition. You can be creative. You have time to plan, create, work together while apart.
  • Remember that even as we fight this pandemic and we witness the deaths that are happening, that does not mean your losses count less. They are different. We need to mourn the death; we need to support those serving and take care of the mourners. But we need to celebrate you, too.

Class of 2020, you will get through this. But the losses can't be replaced by the substitutions. You deserve to grieve them, any way you need to.

Please be safe. We need you in our future.

[This was originally published on Facebook and has been republished with the author's permission.]

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