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The Covid Class of 2020: Guidance for Grieving Seniors

For the last four years, the last 208 weeks to be exact, I’ve been mentoring a group of high school girls who were scheduled to graduate in May. At the beginning, I couldn’t have imagined today’s reality. A pandemic? A quarantine? Cancelled proms and graduations? None of that

seemed possible in 2016 when this journey started. I imagine a lot of parents find themselves in the same position. There are few handbooks for parenting teenagers in normal times, even fewer specific to parenting high school seniors and virtually no instructions for parenting your senior in this reality.

None of this is easy. Still, as I’ve spent the last several weeks listening to parents of graduates, their teachers and students themselves, a few common ideas keep rising to the top for how we love and celebrate the class of 2020.

1. We must name what is lost. Failing to grieve something that has been lost is like failing to have a funeral when a loved one passes away. It doesn’t ease the pain; it just forces us to grieve in isolation. The same is true for high school seniors. They are grieving something that has been taken from them with very little warning and few instructions on how to cope. The truth is, rites of passage give kids a sense of value. They represent years of hopes and dreams of what these celebrations could be, and they are worth grieving.

So how do we help them grieve the loss without getting stuck? One idea is to help them name and put words to their feelings. Like many other issues for teenagers, it can be helpful for a parent to offer more questions than answers. Try asking questions like: “What is one thing you’re disappointed about?” “What is one word to describe how you’ve been feeling lately?” “What is one thing about school that you are really going to miss?”

2. Help them cope where they are now. In most parts of the country, school has been canceled for the remainder of the year. Not delayed. Canceled. And because there are so many exciting parts of life still to come, it can be tempting for parents and teenagers to fast-forward through the grief and go instantly into college mode. After all, dorm shopping is more fun than trying to be a senior in high school when there is no high school to attend.

However, skipping this time may not be what is most helpful. As adults, we understand that we can’t fast-forward through hard things. We can’t simply skip parts of life that are confusing or undefined. Sometimes there is limbo. That’s where we are right now, and this is a great time to teach teenagers the skill of living in uncertainty. Not only that, but while talking of what’s next is exciting, it also brings even more anxiety about the unknown into a teenager’s life.

That’s why, as the adults in their lives, it can be helpful to slow down, pause and be exactly where we are. There will be plenty of time to talk about what’s next, but for now, try talking about what it means to find rhythms as a family when there is no schedule. Ask what it might look like to enjoy the rest of high school, even if that means enjoying at home.

3. Graduation may be canceled, but celebration is not. Graduating high school is an accomplishment, even if seniors cross the finish line during quarantine. Of course, so much of the celebration teenagers were looking forward to isn’t possible these days. That’s why one of the most helpful things a parent, guardian or mentor can do is to find ways to celebrate no matter the circumstance.

As a family, it’s still important to put out the graduation sign, to inflate balloons and to tell students that we are proud of them. And, in unique circumstances like these, it may be helpful to find novel ways to celebrate. Ask grandparents, aunts and uncles to write letters of congratulations and send them in the actual mail. Enlist your senior’s favorite teachers or coaches to send a video message. Consider putting together an in-home celebration and schedule a time for everyone in the family to video call and celebrate together. The goal isn’t to make the celebration perfect, but to make it special as a reminder that even in tough times – good things are worth being celebrated.

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For practical and encouraging advice on helping children and teenagers during these uncertain times (including free resources and downloads), please visit TheParentCue.org.