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Missing Out On Big Life Events? It's OK To Mourn

Illustration of graduation caps falling through the air
Yakobchuk via iStock
Many once-in-a-lifetime events, such as graduation, have been postponed or canceled this year due to the coronavirus pandemic.

For high school seniors, spring is usually a time for celebration — graduations, parties and special events to recognize their achievements. But not this year. Many once-in-a-lifetime events have been postponed or canceled due to the coronavirus pandemic. To learn more about how to deal with the loss of important life events, KUER’s Caroline Ballard talked with Sara Lafkas, an assistant professor of social work at Utah Valley University who runs a small practice in Orem. 

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Caroline Ballard: What have you observed with how people are responding to the coronavirus pandemic?

Sara Lafkas: I've definitely seen some clients who are presenting more anxiety and depression, because of things like loss of their routine, the loss of social connection, the loss of the world and the way it was, the anxiety of what might happen — kind of that anticipatory anxiety. 

A couple of clients have actually less anxiety, depression, because they are removed from their regular routines, and they're not running into the triggers. So, I'm seeing that a little bit too. But overall I am seeing some people who have more difficulties dealing with some of these things.

CB: The United States is seeing a climbing death toll from COVID-19. But there are other losses — life events, graduation, prom, weddings, birthdays. Is it fair to call the distress people feel from missing those life events grief?

SL: I think that's a really apt way to conceptualize what's going on with a lot of people right now. Because it's not only loss of routine, but it's also the loss of the plans and the celebrations and the milestones. Especially if there's a once in a lifetime event that you are going to have like a graduation. And when you can't have those things that creates some very powerful feelings. And I think that can be conceptualized as grief. 

Because it's not only a loss of this thing happening, but there's also no clear path as to when this is going to end or what things are going to look like, or are you going to have a replacement for some of these losses? So, it's that unknown coupled with a loss.

CB: One group especially affected by this is high school seniors. There are so many events to commemorate that time in people's lives and many were canceled basically overnight. What would you say to those students?

SL: One, give yourself permission to feel your feelings, no matter how they manifest. A lot of people experience things like denial or anger, depression, bargaining. All these different things could possibly happen. Those feelings are OK. 

I think a lot of people might feel guilty because they might feel like “Oh, well, you know, it could be worse. I could be out of a job. I could be sick.” And that might be true, but it doesn't invalidate the loss that is very real and that you are going through. 

Seeking social connection and support. Grief is an internal process, emotional process, but mourning is a ritual that often goes along with grief. Is there a way to express your grief through mourning — your grief of that loss of that graduation? For example, could you write about it? Could you have a support group meeting with other students online? Could you talk about your memories? Could you commemorate this loss in some way? I think that doing those sorts of ritualized things can help with the expression of grief.

CB: What's the power in naming one of the emotions someone might be experiencing as grief?

SL: I think that there's always power in being able to identify with what you're going through. To be able to name the process. It normalizes that. It kind of makes it more of a common experience. Also, because you're grieving, you're going through something that's a loss. It's not only a loss experienced by you, but it's experienced by so many other people. 

And so I think just naming this as grief gives it a sense of, “OK, this is a process that is going to have to be played out.” It's not necessarily something that's going to be with you for the rest of your life. But it will be something that plays out over time. And I think that there is power in having that knowledge, because I think it enables you to sit with it a little bit more comfortably. Hopefully.

Caroline Ballard hosts All Things Considered at KUER. Follow her on Twitter @cballardnews

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