by Chay Tanchanco, LMFT
Whether a student is graduating kindergarten or college, they may be struggling through a very unique moment in their lives: a transition without ceremony. They may be grieving the loss of their usual senior year festivities, saying goodbye to friends abruptly without being able to hug, left with sadness, anger, emptiness, or numbness altogether. In fact, it may be months before their emotional system realizes what an impact this has had on them.
If you are a fellow student or a loved one of a student or recent graduate, I have some heartfelt advice from graduates who were willing to share their perspective.
1) "Allow me time to celebrate and remember what was."
The most hated and yet most frequent question to any graduate is: "So, what's next?"
Anyone who has gone through high school and/or college especially knows the anxiety and discomfort that comes when you don't have a "good enough" answer. If you are unsure what to say to a graduate who is coming home for the summer or taking time off before whatever 'next' will bring, a good rule of thumb is to listen first, and err on the side of open-ended.
Listening allows the graduate to be as they are. No two students are alike. There are a lot of "shoulds" when things don't happen the way we expect them to have happened. "We should have been able to have grad night," "We should have gotten a chance to go to prom," "We should have been able to walk the stage," "We should have been able to go out for our last year in college," "We should have a job/internship/school lined up," and the most hurtful and most relatable one of all:
"I should be happy that I finished, and I am.. and I'm not."
If they need to remember and appreciate the good things and the accomplishments and the terrible, horrible, oh-my-god-I-can't-believe-that-happened moments, then sit with them and immerse yourself in their memories. Laugh with them, cry with them, and appreciate what made their school experience special. Whether they're 28 or 5 years old, the impact will be immeasurable. Even the youngest child knows the value of empathy.
2) "Be extremely mindful of sharing your own experiences."
In my own opinion, a well-intentioned, albeit ill-informed Internet/Facebook trend was to 'share your own college graduate picture' to support the students who were unable to have graduation ceremonies. It is often a gut-instinct to immediately bring up whatever 'memory' comes to mind whenever we are prompted with discomfort and it can often be misused in place of empathy. It can feel dismissive, disrespectful, and downright rude to recount your tales of senior year when the class of 2020 is mourning its own.
The graduates I spoke to did not swear off of hearing about others' experiences entirely; in fact, they noted key moments of feeling validated and connected when someone they love shared their own devastation of moving away from their friends post-grad in "pre-corona" times. The key that unlocks those moments however, is that feeling of trust and connection. Before you share some meaningful piece of insight or memory, think hard about what your intention is. Is my intention to be understanding, helpful, to pick up their spirits? Can you say it differently? Is there another way you can support your friend or child?
3) "Weather the sadness to find our joy."
When there have been heavy or sad themes in our lives, we can often push away from them. We may not have had the support or skills that we needed to process those moments, and we may avoid them in any way we can. So, when we encounter other people who may be experiencing sadness or loss, we tend to do the same with them, telling ourselves that we are 'helping' by 'making them feel better'. Sometimes, we do need a laugh. Sometimes, we need a break from the heavy burden of suffering and struggle that will always be with us.
And sometimes, we need to burst into tears, break down, taking time to release the tension of all the loss we feel. Having someone willing to be there (or to check on us when we are done) creates a healing space for us to see the glimmers of hope when all feels lost. Sometimes, we need no words at all.