Soothing Seniors’ Sorrows: Making up for Loss of Graduation Rites of Passage

Soothing Seniors’ Sorrows: Making up for Loss of Graduation Rites of Passage

With traditional celebrations impossible, families are pivoting to other ways to recognize and celebrate soon-to-be graduates. 

For Julianna Nicolli, it’s quite simple.  

“I’m missing out,” she says. 

A senior at Mayfield High School, she’s one of countless teenagers losing out on experiencing the traditions, rites of passage and ceremonies marking the end of their high school years.

Proms, commencements and graduation parties have all been put on hold, rescheduled (maybe) or canceled altogether due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

“She just keeps saying ‘I’m so disappointed,’” says her mom, Marianne Nicolli.

Julianna says she isn’t angry, just upset.

“Because it’s out of my control, and it’s not like I can be angry about something I can’t fix,” she says.

Even though the situation isn’t fixable, that doesn’t mean parents won’t try. Marianne says she’s tried to find ways of easing the negative impact for her daughter. 

“We’re trying to keep it normal and doing all the things we were planning anyway,” Marianne says. “I had one of those quilts made with her old t-shirts. I wasn’t going to give it to her until graduation, but I gave it to her early to make her feel better.”

There are ways for parents to help make it up to grads and make seniors feel special — even if it isn’t in the traditional ways, says Natalie Borrell, a high school psychologist and founder of Life Success for Teens.

Start by acknowledging their emotions and validating them, Borrell says, since their feelings of loss are justified.

“They’re missing out on all of the ‘lasts,’” she says.

Unfortunately, some parents or other adults may have a tendency to treat the teen’s loss of a graduation ceremony or prom flippantly. 

“When they express those things to other people, sometimes adults are minimizing it: ‘OK, it’s prom; I understand you’re upset, but people are dying,’” she says.

While it’s not life and death, Borrell says these losses are important in the teen’s life.  

“Don’t dismiss or discount what they’re saying. Understand this is a big loss for them,” Borrell says.

Instead, she suggests parents help them look for and identify silver linings and appreciate the little things. 

Marianne Nicolli, for example, is using this as a teachable moment.

“This is teaching them about life and being flexible,” she says. “You can work as hard as you can, but it doesn’t always work out.”

As she nears the end of high school, Julianna says she’s learned something about herself through this period of distance learning and separation.

“I’m less of a procrastinator than I thought I was,” she says. “I really can sit down and put my mind to something if I want to. I can do it. I think it’s good that I figured that out because I’m going to college in the fall, so I need to manage my time better, and I think that’s going to help me with that.”

From left: Julianna Nicolli’s senior picture, her prom dress hanging on a door and a special quilt her mom Marianne had made.

Here are a couple of ideas to show your seniors that they’re special:

Organize a drive-by graduation party.
Let people know the day and time for family and friends to drive by, honk their horn or hold a sign.

“It’s making up for the spirit of the event, keeping social distance, but still acknowledging the importance of the day,” Borrell says.

“They still deserve that acknowledgment,” Marianne Nicolli says. 

Hang their cap and gown on the front door or fashion them into a flag.
You know those small yard signs the schools usually post that say “A Grad at _____ High School lives here”? Amp them up and fill your yard with a larger than life version of the same gesture.

Arrange for a virtual prom using Zoom.
Keep it to a manageable number; for example, with the group your teen was planning to go with. Those expensive prom dresses don’t have to hang on the door, put them to use.  Seniors, their friends and dates can get dressed up and submit song requests to a designated DJ. 

Make up for canceled senior projects or shadowing experiences that usually take place in the spring.
Leverage your own network and help them arrange e-interviews or video chats with people in fields of interest. 

Motivating them to think of others will also help them cope.

“Put them in a position where they are the ones giving help to somebody else,” Borrell says. “Some type of volunteer experience or doing a good deed every day. It really shifts your perspective from being a victim in all of this.”

Even Lieutenant Governor John Husted suggested something similar, inviting idle teens and college students to get jobs in fields in desperate need of a workforce that isn’t vulnerable. Grocery stores and delivery services could use some capable workers to help those in need.

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