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Graduation Grief - Tips for Parents Feeling Grief and Joy

change grief grief support May 24, 2022
Graduates celebrate in their caps and gowns in front of a sunset.

By Kim Hanlon

Quick general thought: You may think that because you are not grieving a loss right now that you're not grieving, period... We encourage you to read on. You can learn more about how grief can show up in your life and the lives of those around you. 

Content warning: This blog is written for parents experiencing graduation grief with their senior high school students. It may be difficult to read if you are a parent to a child who is not graduating on time, or if your child has died and won’t meet this milestone. Here are some other blogs you may find supportive: Everywhere and Nowhere: Another Birthday Without You, and Bouncing Back After An Emotional Grief Date. 

Naming Graduation Grief

The weather is getting warmer and it is starting to feel like summer. It is hard for me to believe that school is nearly out. I know I am feeling emotional about my six-year-old promoting to first grade, and I can only imagine the mix of joy and graduation grief many parents of high school seniors are experiencing. Many do not associate happy occasions with grief or may feel the need to focus on the positive. However, this blog will help you understand how there can be conflicting feelings around graduation as well as provide tips for navigating this momentous occasion

Some may be reading and thinking that since they do not have a graduating kid, or are not a parent, that this blog does not relate. We encourage you to read on as you can learn more about how grief can show up in your life (in other periods of change if not graduations!) and also the lives of those around you. Perhaps if you remove the word ‘graduation’ and replace it with something else such as a year abroad, army or government service, or any other change.

I do not have personal experience (yet!) as a parent of a graduating high schooler, but I do know how I felt as a sibling when my brother, Steven, graduated and went to college, and then how the experience felt when I moved on from high school. Oh, there was such a swirl of excitement, joy, anxiety, sadness, nostalgia, pride, and uncertainty. 

Last year Ilana and I had the opportunity to design a custom workshop for a small group of mom friends who were each navigating their first (or only) child graduating and moving on to college. It was such a privilege to witness their experience and provide support during this momentous period for them. They hadn’t yet associated the word “grief” with their experience. We helped them understand that we all experience grief when something familiar ends, or when we are beginning something new. 

Grief is more than death, it is in moments of realizing potential and reconciling that with our hopes as well as our doubts. 

It is in moments of being so proud of our kids while fearing what obstacles may lie ahead. It is in moments of relationships shifting from parenting a child to parenting a young adult to parenting an adult. 

It is feeling our own age as we wonder how these kids grew from being shy kindergarteners to teenagers taking pictures in a cap and gown. 

It is in evaluating our personal identity when so much of it has been wrapped up in caring for our kids. 

Grief can also be wondering if our kids will know how to register for classes or find a job or make friends who are good influences. 

Grief can be many things, and what it is for YOU is unique to you

Taking Emotional Inventory

Things that "may" influence how you feel during this time may include: your own experience in high school and graduating, your relationship with your child, whether your child has a plan for after high school or is still figuring it out, whether you have other losses you are grieving, and so much more. 

We have an exercise, “Emotional Inventory + Next Steps”, which can help you turn uncomfortable feelings into productive actions. This tool is inspired by one outlined in the book “When Children Grieve,” by John James and Russell Friedman, and is a version of something we teach in most workshops as well as in our workbook, “Grief and Gratitude: Building Your Coping Action Plan.” (Hint: both are recommended resources for you parents and caregivers!). 

It doesn't take long to start to create your “Emotional Inventory + Next Steps” (10 minutes to start!), and it is a “living” document you can revisit as new feelings and thoughts arise over time. 

Take a piece of paper and fold it in half. Then in the left column write down everything that comes to mind and pulls at your heartstrings when you think of your child graduating and moving into a new chapter of life. Some ideas to add to those already discussed:

  • Summer plans
  • Conversations you want to have 
  • Family time and trips this summer
  • Holidays
  • School drop-off
  • First visits back home
  • Plans if your child not going to college 
  • COVID and the impact to high school as well as next steps
  • Hopes, dreams, and expectations for your child
  • Own experience with graduation and college/life after
  • How your other kids, the siblings, are coping

Now in the right-hand column, write ideas for things you can do to feel more at peace with what you listed in your emotional inventory. Star or note which items you would like to share with your kid. 

Connecting With Your Child

You can gauge what will be ok to share with them. It is encouraged to share some of your feelings with them, as it can help them feel more comfortable doing the same if you go first. You can definitely find a balance of sharing your feelings without “putting them on'' your kid. 

One suggestion to start the conversation is to comment “I am feeling sad that this summer is going to be different as we prepare for college. I am so excited for you and also wishing I could turn back time. I hope we can find time to make this summer special together.” 

This conversation can be carried throughout the summer, and depending on your teen it may take some time for them to also open up. It is okay if they don’t, and we advise you to avoid pressuring them to open up. 

You can explicitly say, “I know how nervous I was when I moved away. I was sad to live away from childhood friends even as I was excited and ready for something new. It is okay if you also feel conflicting feelings. I am here if you want to talk about them. Perhaps this Sunday we can grab ice cream and talk about it some?” 

And for those things you feel best not to share with your senior, you can opt to talk to a friend or your partner

Talking about your feelings can help you validate and truly feel your feelings. Writing them down, as in the “Emotional Inventory + Next Steps” outlined above, and stating them out loud will likely feel different than when you think about them to yourself. 

It is also so helpful to not just voice your anxiety, but come up with some actionable steps to know what you can do when grief bubbles up. 

For those of you with anticipatory grief about making summer plans with a busy graduating teen, you can come up with a game plan to have “dates” together or something else that suits your relationship with your kid. 

And if you are worried about whether your child will visit enough, you can make plans for when you can check-in via phone calls and even buy plane tickets for the first visit home so you know when to look forward to that. 

One mom in our 2021 workshop shared after this exercise that “It was so unexpectedly cathartic and helped me visualize (and therefore prepare for) the actual day of leaving my son at college.” 

Another mom had this reflection, “I feel much less overwhelmed by thoughts of grief when I think about [my son] going to college. Thinking through with the group some of the feelings I might face helped to make them less scary.”

Remember: It is your responsibility to meet your own grief needs. You and your child can talk to share your feelings together, and coordinate ways to meet each other's needs for connection or planning for change, but at the end of the day you each are responsible for your own feelings and what you do to meet your individual support needs. 

This is a big moment in your life. How you feel will likely shift day to day. We would love to hear how graduation grief is showing up for you and if our “Emotional Inventory + Next Steps” exercise helped you. Your graduation grief is valid. It is ok to struggle with this. It is ok if you aren’t as well. Your feelings are yours and do not have to look like others’. 

Breathe, parent, breathe. You can do this.