The Gladness & Sadness of Grad 2020

Caps Off to Our 2020 Grads for Weathering this Grief-Stricken Season with Grit and Grace!

“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of light, it was the season of darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair.”

~ Charles Dickens, A Tale of Two Cities

Grad season is upon us once more and it is one for the history books. If you’re a graduate or parent, your grad calendar now entails adding a virtual commencement ceremony to your spring schedule and settling for an on-screen photo or short video clip presentation instead of the long-awaited cap and gown walk, handshake with the head of academia, and proffering of the diploma photo montage.

What should feel like a joyous time has you feeling ambivalent. You want to feel excited — it’s the end of a well-earned journey and the beginning of a new exciting life chapter.

But instead, you feel like you’re standing under a dark raincloud in a windstorm with an umbrella.

Joy & Sorrow: A Co-mingled Affair

Bereavement experts define this very real grief you are feeling in a couple of ways. First, there is the complicated grief of wanting to feel joy which feels countercultural to the mood of the world. This form of grief comes with guilt, confusion, and reluctance to mourn for fear it might seem insignificant or insensitive in light of the larger losses people are navigating during the pandemic.

As a parent, these emotions are compounded with all the anticipatory grief you’ve been stuffing down at the thought of the empty or emptier nest, as you envision waving farewell to a college or employment bound graduate and saying goodbye to your own active parenting role.

This grief can also be understood as ambiguous grief, a term coined by University of Minnesota professor Pauline Boss, to describe the sorrow at what this missed or mixed-up rite of passage is delivering to graduates this year; a sense of incompletion and ambiguity. Yes, there is likely to be a livestream of the commencement ceremony but what about the time-honored rite where graduates gather to throw their decorated caps in the air?

I witnessed a sense of this tempered bewilderment in conversation with my son’s girlfriend, Ellery (who is graduating Cum Laude from Whitman College in Walla Walla, Washington this weekend), when I offered my heartfelt condolences to her.

Ellery posing at the entrance of the Memorial Building at Whitman College (May 2020).

“Yeah, it’s dismal,” she admitted with a hybrid smile and frown, before adding, “but at least we get an online ceremony.” Or as others have shared, at least their loved ones are safe and healthy and at least they have the privilege of graduating, or at least….

For graduates, this litany of at leasts offers little comfort to counter the pain of losing a constellation of experiences they’ve been anticipating for years, most notable for first-generation graduates or those who have faced enormous challenges to get to this point. This pain might be complicated by other recent losses, such as family employment or home losses, the death of grandparents or other loved ones in recent years, or the grief of extended family members cancelling graduation travel plans.

Some may see this lesser celebration as no big deal, but for seniors, there were many hoped-for dates penciled in on the calendar. For starters, there were activities like senior projects, proms, school plays, job completions, foreign exchange trips, graduation ceremonies, championship competitions, and summer internship opportunities.

Post-Grad Bonfire Celebrations are a Time-Honored Rite

Add to this the all-night, after-grad parties, yearbook signings, award ceremonies, final Friday night lights, farewells to faculty, campus photos, post-grad parties, and a host of other capstone traditions that accompany the final days of school. These plans have all but disappeared for them, never to be re-created in quite the same way, no matter the ingenuity.

It can be hard to let go of those same old ways of celebrating. After all, what student doesn’t secretly relish the acute embarrassment of their family’s public display of raucous cheering as they cross the stage to receive their diploma? (Well, OK…introverts and those too cool for school rites of passage, but you get my point.) These moments are big and they’re all but gone.

Acknowledging and mourning the sudden disappearance of these missed opportunities for joy is important. Encouraging graduates to connect with their friends to name these losses helps them make sense of all their swirling emotions. The same is true for fellow graduating parents.

Whether or not we recognize these losses for what they are, we experience such missed or incomplete rites as a kind of death. In the case of school closures, it is the death of a dream unrealized and a final semester abruptly ended without warning. The acute sadness you feel is the pain of feeling attachment to a ceremonial ideal (now pompless given the circumstances) that will not occur in the form you had expected.

In the face of all this nope this spring, there is hope in the form of devising new rituals and celebratory touches that keep social distancing challenges in mind — such as these 20 Creative Ways to Celebrate Your 2020 Grad.

And even as these gestures don’t come close to replacing traditional graduation rituals, they just might offer that extra bit of joy your 2020 grad festivities need this year.

And what grad family couldn’t use a little gladness this spring?



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Danna Schmidt

Master Life-Cycle Celebrant of ceremonial moments from birth to earth | Seer/Sayer/Soulsmith/Spy | Purveyor of Piercing Poems | She/Her |