Dear 2020 High School Graduates, You Have Permission to Grieve
Dear High School Senior,
I won’t pretend I know how you feel, because I don’t. Even though I graduated a million years ago and didn’t go through what you’re experiencing, I sympathize with your plight. You have a right to grieve the rites of passages you’ve missed. It’s not life or death like many in this country are experiencing, but it is a significant loss. I’m sorry you missed prom and all the rituals surrounding that one famous/infamous night. I’m sad you missed the pomp and circumstance of the graduation ceremony. Putting that weird gown on with an ill-fitting cap that needs a hundred bobby pins may not sound too special, but it’s one of those experiences almost everyone has in common. It’s OK to feel sad you missed out on walking up on the stage to get your diploma. It was supposed to be your 15 seconds of glory.
Being disappointed is a normal reaction, don’t feel guilty. Image borrowed from postsecret.com
People are telling graduates to deal with it stoically; it’s not that big of a deal. There was a meme going around designed to make graduating high school seniors feel guilty about complaining. It said seniors had no right to feel bad about missing graduation since people who were teenagers in the ’60s and ’70s had missed graduation to head off to Vietnam. Yes, that was a dark time in our history, but is this supposed to make seniors feel better? Grief is not a competition; you are entitled to your emotions. Then there was the trend mostly perpetuated by people my age (old geezers), which had people posting their senior pictures in a misguided effort to make this year’s graduates feel better supposedly. Right, like showing you what you missed is making you feel better.
For some of you, high school was a breeze. You had friends, made good grades, and were involved in all kinds of activities. For others, it was miserable. Maybe the academics were brutal, just not your thing. Perhaps you were bullied or never quite fit in. Probably most of you fell in between those two ends of the spectrum, and while it wasn’t terrible, you’re ready to move to the next stage. Whether it was easy, difficult, or somewhere in between, you deserve an arena full of people applauding your accomplishments.
Our society is accustomed to rituals to mark the passing of one stage of life into another. Death is hard to grieve without a funeral. Marriage feels more celebrated with a wedding, and a senior feels more ready to say goodbye to high school with a graduation ceremony. Without the rituals we’ve created around the end of high school, it feels like you’re missing that symbol of closure. You needed, or at least wanted, to hear your name announced on stage. You wanted to have the diploma placed in your hand as people clapped and took your picture. You wanted to have those last few times of being with your classmates.
Don’t let anyone invalidate your grief. People love to compare grief, but that’s a pointless activity only serving to make a person feel worse. Everyone has rough patches in life. It’s not a competition to see who has it worse. It’s understandable to have some sadness about missing prom and graduation, even when you know it makes sense to not have gatherings because of the pandemic. Feelings don’t have to be rational to be valid; your sorrow is justifiable and understandable.
Let yourself grieve for a moment. If it makes you feel better, eat that pint of Ben and Jerry’s, throw yourself on the bed dramatically and have a good cry, or spend an afternoon watching sad movies. You were cheated out of your award ceremonies, your prom, your graduation, and all the parties. For years you had watched as the older grades experienced their senior year, and you had the implied promise it would happen for you also. It’s acceptable to pout a bit, and it’s understandable to feel some fear about the future. It’s a scary, unprecedented time with too many uncertainties.
After you’ve grieved, I hope you’ll find a way to celebrate your achievements, a way that will be meaningful for you. Some schools are planning virtual ceremonies, and some are postponing or canceling. What I wish for you is a happy celebration with friends and relatives when the world is a bit safer. I also hope you have a lifetime of happy milestones to celebrate. And just in case no one else said this to you, I’m proud of you. Congratulations to the graduates of 2020!
With compassion and empathy,
A high school graduate from 1976