Our High School Seniors Are Grieving

by Jessica Land
Originally Published: 
Courtesy of Sue O'Bryan

This was her year.

2020 had the makings for an epic final year of high school. My daughter was at a point in her high school career where she had finally come into her own. After three years of being an extreme introvert, my daughter had finally blossomed in her fourth (and final) year. It was like watching a dormant plant spring forth new growth.

Senior year was the first year she felt promise, excitement, and dare I say anticipation for what was ahead. She was savoring the present while working towards her future. She dreaded missing classes because she knew the time was precious and finite. She loved her classes. She even loved the lunch period, which was a huge shift, after spending the past three years holed up in the library at lunch hour.

My daughter finally had good friends, a strong group of supportive, encouraging people. She had become an ally, a confidante and a safe place for those who struggled at home. She and her first boyfriend were all set to go to her first — and only — prom. We had a list of vintage thrift shops to visit, so she could find the perfect dress. She spent the summer studying for her SAT and had just received word of college acceptance.

Courtesy of Sue O’Bryan

Like I said, it was her year.

But now, graduation announcements have arrived at the high school and sit unopened in the counseling department. Caps and gowns remain folded in those cheap plastic bags, stacked in boxes and pushed up against a wall. Senior photos cover glossy pages of their upcoming yearbook. Those pages will most likely remain unsigned.

The big graduation party has been cancelled, and more and more, the odds are that graduation will occur on a virtual platform.

To say my heart breaks for her, and me too, would be an understatement. I wanted my daughter to experience the senior year I never had. I didn’t have the opportunity to throw my cap into the air or accept my hard-earned diploma on a stage in front of my family. I never went on the highly anticipated senior trip, and I sure as hell didn’t go to my prom.

Because of this, I was excited for my daughter to have the opportunities that I didn’t. The best part was to see her excited every morning, each day another chance to embrace her senior year.

My daughter is devastated. She is mourning the last, lost opportunities to make memories before launching into the adult world of college and voting rights.

Senior year is the definitive year, the final hurrah to the past 12 years of childhood. They get to bask in the glow of being in the spotlight, celebrating milestone 18th birthdays and gaining increased independence. What started as a season of promise has ended with an anticlimactic, disappointing last chapter.

Courtesy of Sue O’Bryan

What can we do to support these kids, to instill in them a sense of hope? Right now, the last thing they need to hear from us is constant frightening talk: the exponential number of new cases, staggering death tolls, and a poorly run government. They have constant, streaming access to all that information anyway.

We can emphasize the importance of social distancing, which can be particularly challenging for teens. We can share what our brave healthcare professionals are doing, and we can show how people and communities are coming together to support one another. We can show the creativeness of small businesses thinking outside the box in order to keep afloat. We can show that even during hard times, people rise up.

At the same time, however, we need some corona-free zones in our homes too. The stress that is playing out in their lives right now is significant and life-altering. They need our empathy, and they need to know it’s okay to grieve. My daughter says there is a certain amount of guilt that comes with the grief because so many have lost family, friends, jobs, income, and stability. I agree with her, it could be worse, but her feelings are valid and worthy of being acknowledged. We are collectively grieving from a whole variety of losses, all meaningful to us.

At least they have consolation they aren’t alone in their grief — while we as parents mourn right along with them, it is somewhat more manageable when we realize we aren’t alone.

For now, we wait. We wait to hear from the school district as they frantically work to find alternatives and create new plans. We wait to hear if there will be a way to end senior year on a positive note. The waiting is the hardest part.

It’s very likely these kids may have unknowingly completed their final day at high school, without ever getting the chance to say goodbye. They came into the world on the heels of 9/11 and are ending high school under the global crisis of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Let’s remember to be gentle with our big kids too. History is being rewritten right now, and it’s a lot for them too.

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