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The Grief and Loss Caused by the Pandemic is Real
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.
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:
Saying things like: “I’m fine, Mom! Leave me alone” or “It’s no big deal.”
Doing things like: Avoiding talking about school, friends, events; spending a lot of time alone; not engaging socially with friends/classmates; not being interested in any of the backup planning happening.
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:
Saying things like: “You can’t make me do that” or “This is stupid.”
Doing things like: Yelling at parents or siblings; defiance; sneaking out (see also bargaining).
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:
Saying things like: “Maybe they’ll do a make-up prom or graduation in the summer” or “Maybe the order will be lifted in time to pull off the event.”
Doing things like: Starting and stopping lots of hobbies/crafts/projects; breaking the stay-at-home rules to sneak out to hang out with friends. This looks like simple teen disobedience, but may actually be an attempt to regain the normal teen life they’ve lost.
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:
Saying things like: “I can’t do it”or “What does it matter now?” or “I don’t care anymore.”
Doing things like: Giving up on schoolwork; not exercising; not doing much of anything.
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:
Saying things like: “This sucks, but I’m glad I have a roof over my head” or “I’m bummed not to get my graduation but I’m still excited for what comes next.”
Doing things like: Keeping up with schoolwork; taking the steps needed for graduation or summer planning or college prep; exercising and reaching out to friends to pass the time.
So what can we as parents or clinicians do?
Ask questions to understand their experience. What are they missing most? What is the hardest thing about not being in school? What one event or experience is the hardest to let go of?
Validate their emotions. Yes, it is important to focus on the positive in our lives and yes, there are a lot of other things happening in our families and communities. But these are real losses for our kids, and the emotions associated with them are real. Acknowledging that it is OK to feel sad, down, frustrated, and empty is part of the grieving process.
Be a partner in planning/problem-solving. Once the harder emotions are acknowledged and accepted, then it may be time to get creative. What might be a fun or meaningful way to “make up” for the most important lost event? Is it a Zoom party with teammates, planning a virtual prom, brainstorming a summer graduation party if restrictions are lifted? What would allow your child to get the closure and celebration they want?
Amy Mezulis, PhD, is a licensed clinical psychologist who received her BA from Harvard University and her MA and PhD in Clinical Psychology from University of Wisconsin – Madison. Dr. Mezulis provides services to older children, adolescents and adults utilizing an evidence-based, cognitive-behavioral approach that includes mindfulness and acceptance-based treatments. Dr. Mezulis has specialized training in mood and anxiety disorders, eating disorders, suicidality and self-injury, trauma, substance use, and adolescent development. She is currently on the faculty at Seattle Pacific University, where she chairs the Clinical Psychology PhD program.
If your child or family needs help right away, please call 911 or visit your local emergency room. You can also call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline (1-800-273-8255), or text the Crisis Text Line (text HELLO to 741741).
If you or a member of your family needs help right away, please call 911 or visit your local emergency room. You can also call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline (1-800-273-8255), or text the Crisis Text Line (text HELLO to 741741).
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