The end of the 2020 school year was unlike any other, but because of the sudden and strange turn it took, many of us assumed that the 2021 school year would be a little more normal. Because of that, this full school year of Covid may have left many frustrated as they continued to hope for a glimpse of “normal”. Even those that knew this school year would be different than usual may still have struggled with the reality of how different it was from their original expectations.
Throughout the last year, grief has been all around us. Death of loved ones, loss of jobs, and end of dreams have led us all to our own personal grieving. There has also been the collective grief we’ve experienced as a nation and as a world when plans, hopes, and expectations were deferred or dashed. For school-age children to graduate students, that has included the unmet expectations of this school year.
Grieving is a natural part of the process of any loss we suffer. Leaning into the discomfort of grieving helps you to make sense of the uncomfortable emotions and frustrating experiences you had. Grieving and coming to terms with how the school year did look for you (or your children) is also critical to moving forward. If you’re not sure how to intentionally “let” yourself grieve, the following tips and suggestions that I’ve used with my clients in therapy may help.
These tips can be used for a student grieving her school year, a parent grieving the school year her kids had, or facilitated by a parent for a young child to grieve for themselves.
Start by being specific
Most likely, you experienced online or hybrid learning and missed the camaraderie of being in class with peers. Maybe you missed the experience of being in person—chatting with professors or other students after class, or just having a reason to leave your dorm or apartment. Maybe you missed getting dressed for class, walking around campus, smiling at your classmates as you passed by. Maybe you’re a high school or college athlete who didn’t get to have a season, or you didn’t get to compete at a high level because competitions were limited to your region or conference. Maybe you couldn’t participate in your acapella group or had to perform theatre productions in front of an empty auditorium.
Then there are all the milestones that may have been canceled or different than usual: homecomings, attending sporting events and school productions, putting on dance marathons, and, of course, graduations. Taking part in these extracurricular activities and student events is a pinnacle part of the student experience, so it makes sense that not having them stings so much. Missing experiences can cement the feeling of loss, as they are usually specific to student life.
As you think about this school year and feel sad, angry, disappointed, frustrated, or confused, reflect on what exactly incites those feelings. What exactly are you upset about missing, losing, or not having? Spend some time writing down (yes, literally writing) what you lost during this school year, and be specific.
Then, for each aspect of the school year that you wrote down, add why missing that is hard for you. What were you looking forward to about graduation? What was special about school football games? There are no wrong answers here—maybe it was the campus atmosphere on game days, even the familiar smell of a crisp autumn day while fans grill out and tailgate. The point here is to help you articulate your loss rather than leaving it feeling like one vague feeling of frustration.
If you are a parent with a child in school, you can facilitate this exercise for them. Even if they don’t have big milestones to miss, you can still help them express what they are upset about missing. For younger children, they can draw pictures of what they miss, and you can talk to them about it by simply asking, “Tell me about that,” motioning to the drawing.
Try to refrain from reminding your child that others have suffered much worse losses (comparing) or saying things like, “But didn’t you like being home with us?” While there may be positive aspects of virtual school, before jumping to the silver lining, let your child express their frustrations.
Offer validating affirmations to them such as, “That must have been really hard,” or, “That makes a lot of sense.” When we feel validated, we’re able to let go of our emotions more easily. On the other hand, when we feel dismissed or unheard, we often dig our feet in the sand and cling to our frustrations, or at least make them known more intensely. By affirming your child’s frustrations and letting them grieve this loss, though it may seem small to adults, you’re helping them to make sense of their experience and move on.
Stop comparing your grief and start expressing it
An important part of grieving and allowing yourself to experience whatever emotions come up is to stop comparing to others’ losses. As a marriage and family therapist, I’ve worked with clients who share the same tendency I have—that many others likely share—to diminish our own losses and suffering by comparing it to someone who “has it worse.” Most likely, we will always find someone who has it worse than we do; someone else’s pain is greater, someone else’s loss was more profound, someone else started with less than we have and still lost more.
While comparing gives us perspective and can incite gratitude for what we do have, it doesn’t erase our own feelings. If you’re sad about not having a prom or college graduation due to the pandemic, it won’t necessarily make you less sad by hearing about someone who lost their job and income due to Covid-19. It might make you feel guilty for having your own normal, natural, expected feelings (of sadness, anger—whatever). Guilt—or any judgment for that matter—of our own feelings usually compels us to try to suppress the feeling or rush through it.
Unfortunately, such methods usually only take a toll on our mental health (whether we notice it initially or not) as the feeling remains but is hidden by our efforts to distract ourselves. Then, down the road, feelings left un-felt (suppressed) can snowball into mental illness (anxiety, depression) and/or come out in unhelpful ways (excessive drinking, drug use, restrictive eating, overworking, overexercising, poor boundaries, etc.)
Instead of playing the comparison game and trying to suppress your feelings, let them out in adaptive ways. Talking to a trusted loved one, going to therapy, journaling, or even praying about what you’re feeling can help to name and therefore express the feeling. Physical expressions of the emotion, such as a cathartic cry, dancing, walking, running, kickboxing, or yoga can do wonders to help you release the emotions.
At the same time, don’t fall prey to the idea that grief is concrete or linear. Although with time the sting of this loss may lessen, be prepared to feel intensely at some moments and okay at others. The thing about grief is that it can creep up when we least expect it, or even when we think we are “over it”. Give yourself grace knowing that your feelings about this may wax and wane, and that is normal. The best way to let yourself grieve is to accept each emotion as it comes up for you and give yourself some space to let it out (by talking, crying, or exercising). Shaming yourself for being upset because “it’s just school” and trying to shut down the emotion doesn’t actually make the feelings of grief go away.
Open up to empathy
As for that person you compared yourself to? Let your own experience of loss and your corresponding feelings serve as a way to connect to a person suffering from a different loss. You felt sad and angry at the lack of control you felt over losing this school year and all its anticipated milestones? Use that experience and those emotions to open yourself up to empathy for a friend who is feeling heartbroken and irate over the death of their mom and all the milestones they’ll have to endure without her.
You need not explicitly articulate this connection you made to your friend—which would likely feel insulting to her—but you’re using your own experience of loss (however “small”) to imagine the weight of what she’s going through. Your own experience of loss allows you to have empathy for your friend’s monumental loss because you use your own experience of those emotions to get in touch with a glimpse of what she might be feeling.
In the last year, expecting the unexpecting has become almost second nature to all of us. Collectively, we’ve been dealt loss after loss in nearly every aspect of life. Individually and as a world we’re likely feeling weary and worn down, which is only further reason to be intentional about letting ourselves grieve even the smaller losses, like a school year. When we make space for grief, we’re able to more readily move on, and make space for something else.