How to ease graduation blues

Julie Saetre | May 07, 2020
Grad with mom

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 adults 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 in counseling psychology in Purdue University’s College of Education in West Lafayette, Indiana, she researches loss and grief experiences in both death and non-death situations. And while the death of a loved one or friend clearly is more impactful than a missed graduation or an eagerly anticipated post-ceremony celebration with classmates, that doesn’t mean the latter losses shouldn’t 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.”

Assuring Key Club and CKI seniors that it’s completely normal and OK to experience grief at this time is an important first step. But that’s just the beginning of helping them find a way forward in a situation none of us has faced before.

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 out our own happily ever after.

“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.”

Kiwanians and advisors to Key Clubs and CKI clubs can play an important role in that process, Servaty-Seib adds.

“When we think about the pandemic, there are all kinds of non-death losses that are occurring here, and the recognition and acknowledgement of that is important. We all have a role as society to enfranchise those losses rather than disenfranchise them.” 
These insights might make that transition a bit smoother for the Key Clubber and CKI members in your life.

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 these response are valid. Encourage your students to own their own reactions.

Let them vent. For her senior students, Servaty-Seib created a Google document in which they could write anonymously about their feelings during the pandemic, how they were dealing with the challenges and disappointments it presented and what they envisioned their paths would be going forward.

“They could see what each other wrote in a shared sense of validity and (realize) they didn’t all experience the same thing. That was another thing to validate: That there’s going to be a range, and we need to be patient and kind with ourselves just as we need to be with others.”

Help them mark their milestones. Key Club and CKI seniors might not be able to attend graduation in person this year. But that doesn’t mean they have to give up on recognizing this important tradition. In fact, it’s important that they 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. Talk to them about what that might look like: Could they plan a home-based ceremony involving immediate family, create a video of key moments and accomplishments throughout their high school careers or collaborate with friends to hold a virtual ceremony in which everyone in the group plays 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.”

Remind them 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,” says Servaty-Seib, “where (they) have committed a lot of effort and made quite a lot of accomplishments.”
Encourage them to look for personal gains. Have they found more time to journal, paint, work out, catch up with old friends via Zoom, read as many books as they 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.”
Tell them to take control. “What control?” they might 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 they’ll take on a daily run, rearranging the furniture in their bedroom or creating a list of items to take to college, they can still be in charge. Help them finds ways of doing just that.
Empower them to use their 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.”
Work with your sponsored Key Club and/or CKI members to plan and carry out a virtual service project that allows them to focus on their strong points and best use their skills.
Know that they might not ask for help. Graduates about to move on to a university or enter the workforce want to become autonomous adults. It’s common for them to think they should keep their emotions hidden and deal with their own struggles. In reality, of course, this is not the time for them to be a martyr or deny their feelings. Let them know that asking for help if they need it actually is a very mature approach. 
“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.”


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