I have a high school senior in Washington State. She was told on a Tuesday in mid-March that school would close that Thursday but return after spring break. She was a little bummed, but to be honest at the time it felt like an extended spring break. My daughter was kind of excited for a lot of Netflix, less homework, and sleeping in. It wasn’t until the announcement 3 weeks later that school wouldn’t re-open at all this spring that reality set in. Her response: “But I didn’t even get to say goodbye!”
Many middle school, high school, and college age students are facing significant loss right now. No spring sports season. No spring musical. No final band, choir, or orchestra concert. No school trip. No end-of-year bonfire. No yearbook signing days at school.
The loss is particularly poignant for seniors. As my daughter said, after four years of high school she doesn’t get to say goodbye in person to all of her classmates and teachers. Her choir had raised money for 2+ years to travel to NYC for a concert at Carnegie Hall – canceled. End-of-year banquet for her final gymnastics season, after 12 years of competing – canceled. College notices came out and all the commiserations and congratulations had to happen remotely. No prom. No graduation...
It isn’t only our kids experiencing loss – we parents are as well. High school graduation is such a culturally significant rite-of-passage, the transition from child to (near) adult, the moment that marks for many families the realization that after 18 years their little bird is preparing to leave the nest. As a mom, I wanted the big graduation party where all her teachers, family, and friends celebrated her and wished her well in her next stage of life. I wanted the photo opp, my girl in her cap and gown surrounded by beaming family members.
When we experience loss, we experience grief. Grief is a complex emotional and behavioral response, and it may be difficult to recognize, especially in teens. It is slower to appear and often hides behind other more obvious emotions.
↑ Amy Mezulis is co-founder and Chief Psychologist at UpLift. This video is an excerpt from our recent webinar on navigating these uncertain times together.
So how do you know if what you’re seeing in your teen or young adult is grief? Most of us are familiar with Dr. Kubler-Ross’ five stages of grief: denial, anger, bargaining, despair, acceptance. How might these show up for teens?
Denial: Denial may feel like numbness and often shows up as avoidance. It may look like:
Anger: Anger often feels like a hot, bubbling, unspecific frustration and may show up as irritability and outbursts. Anger functions to give us an active way to avoid the real loss by blaming others. It may show up as:
Bargaining: Bargaining is trying to get what was lost back again. It feels like a mix of anxiety and hope, tentatively clutching to a small possibility that maybe you can get what you want. Bargaining often shows up as frantic and somewhat illogical attempts to do things to fill the space left by what was lost. You might see:
Despair: When we start to realize what is lost, we start to feel down, sad, and hopeless. Despair may feel very sad and may look like giving up. You may see:
Acceptance: Acceptance is the middle ground. It involves recognizing what has been lost but finding a way to move forward anyways. It may look like:
So what can we as parents or clinicians do?