By Julie Saetre, Communications Specialist, Kiwanis International
No one saw it coming. At least, not as suddenly and as completely as it did. One day, we were living our normal lives. The next, we were under lockdown. “Normal” disappeared instantly, as did any plans we had made for the foreseeable future.
That’s a difficult about-face for anyone to handle. But for Key Club International and CKI seniors preparing for graduation and the next phase of life, it has been particularly jolting. Plans for prom, graduation, college tours, internships, job interviews, apartment hunting: all were suddenly in jeopardy if not postponed indefinitely or canceled outright.
It’s a lot to handle. It’s overwhelming. It’s disappointing and in some cases, heartbreaking. But some seniors who took to social media to express their grief were met with less than sympathetic remarks. Responding posts could be swift and severe.
“People are dying. Don’t be selfish.” “It’s just a dance/ceremony/party/internship/job. You should be thankful you’re healthy.”
And just like that, guilt is added to the complex emotional package brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic.
That’s an unnecessary burden, says Heather Servaty-Seib. A professor of counseling psychology at Purdue University’s College of Education in West Lafayette, Indiana, she researches loss and grief experiences in death and non-death situations. And while the death of a family member or friend is clearly more impactful than a missed graduation or an eagerly anticipated post-ceremony celebration with classmates, that doesn’t mean the latter losses should be dismissed.
“I think it’s quite reasonable and important and necessary not to equate one kind of loss with another,” Servaty-Seib cautions. “That’s just not possible. There’s a very important concept called disenfranchised grief. It’s grief that’s not recognized or acknowledged by society.
“Non-death losses are often disenfranchised experiences. Society is so focused on loss and grief being associated with death, but it is beyond that. And it’s not an attempt to equalize. It’s an attempt to recognize and acknowledge the legitimate losses that go along with non-death experiences.”
Realizing that it’s completely normal and OK to experience grief at this time is the first step Key Club and CKI seniors can take in approaching the upcoming months. But that’s just the beginning of finding a way forward in a situation none of us has faced.
In a video message to her students shortly after the stay-at-home orders began and event cancellations started rolling in, Servaty-Seib explained that many of us see our lives in terms of stories. We have established an over-arching theme, introduced key characters and outlined important chapters. Most likely, we also have plotted our own happily ever.
“Unfortunately,” she said, “life is not always so predictable. And we are often faced with difficult life events that we did not anticipate and that we do not desire. And when we’re in those situations, we are forced to try to reconcile our assumptions about the world with the reality that is in front of us.”
These insights might make that transition a bit smoother. There is no “one size fits all” reaction to this situation. No two people will experience the pandemic in the same way. Yes, all graduating seniors are facing uncertainty as to how or even if an official ceremony will take place. But individual responses vary from one extreme to another, and everything in between.
“Some students are very minimal in terms of the sense of loss,” says Servaty-Seib. “They talk about it like, ‘I just want my degree. I don’t care that it’s virtually. I just want to move on to the next chapter.’ One student said, ‘’It’s not a big deal for me. But it’s a loss for my family. I feel for them because they wanted to see me walk across the stage.’ And then others were like, ‘It feels like all of what I’ve worked toward has been for naught.’”
All of these reactions are valid. Allow yourself to own your own reaction.
Mark your own milestones. You might not be able to attend graduation in person, but that doesn’t mean you have to give up on recognizing this important tradition. In fact, it’s important that you do.
“We don’t have many rites of passage in our culture,” says Servaty-Seib. “And these graduations are really important ones, because we have so few. So how is it that recognition of the movement from one state of being to another can happen if it’s not a graduation ceremony?”
She suggests grads think about how they can mark this passage in a way that is personal and meaningful to them. Plan a home-based ceremony involving immediate family, create a video of key moments and accomplishments throughout your high school career, collaborate with friends to hold a virtual ceremony in which you all play a role.
“Ritual is only as helpful or useful as it is meaningful,” Servaty-Seib says. “In some ways, there might be opportunities for them to be more personal than would a large graduation ceremony that they have very little control over planning. They could create something that includes elements unique to them, the unique representation of their personal journey that a standard ceremony for all could never capture.”
Remember it’s about more than one day. Missing graduation does not override the years leading up to this moment. “This is just the last few months of something that has been a very long journey,” say Servaty-Seib, “where you have committed a lot of effort and made quite a lot of accomplishments.”
Look for personal gains. Have you found more time to journal, paint, exercise, catch up with old friends via Zoom, read as many books as you want or take long walks in nature?
“In any significant life event, there are likely going to be both gains and losses,” says Servaty-Seib. “For some students, this is creating a sense of being sheltered with family before they start this next serious chapter of their life, whatever it might be. It is a way to wrap up this part of their life. Not in the way that they had intended or envisioned, but in a way that can still bring value. That doesn’t discount the losses. It’s just the idea of being honest and open to the potential gains. And those will also be unique to each person.”
Take control. “What control?” you say. “I haven’t had control over my life since the lockdown.”
“Yes, there are many things you will not be able to control,” Servaty-Seib says. “And so my suggestion to you now is truly, there still are some. Find the nuggets of control that you still have right now in the midst of sheltering in place. What are the points of control? They’re much smaller than we would like them to be. But they exist.”
Whether it’s what recipe to make for a family dinner, what route you’ll take on a daily run, rearranging the furniture in your bedroom or creating a list of what you’ll take to college in the fall, you can still be in charge.
Use your gifts. Servaty-Seib‘s psychology students have skills related to grief and loss, so they’ve been reaching out by phone or video chats to check on friends they haven’t seen in a while, just to see how they’re coping. Likewise, Key Club and CKI members can use their leadership and service skills to continue their clubs’ missions virtually.
“I think your (members) have listening ears that are distinct. Different (than the psych students), but still a mindset that can be useful in ways that are not hands-on, physical presence required.”
Ask for help if you need it. This is not the time to be a martyr or hide your feelings. Whether you need emotional support, face financial uncertainty or just have a bad day (week, month), seek out assistance.
“The idea of reaching out to others often leaves (students) with a sense of burdening others in a way that they ‘shouldn’t be.’ That they should be able to handle all of this on their own. We need to push back against that message,” stresses Servaty-Seib. “If there’s any time when you need to be open to the idea of receiving, it’s now.”