Helping High School Students Cope With Loss

Posted on May 7th, 2020

In April of 2007 I was stricken with a mysterious, life-threatening illness that left me unable to use both legs and one arm. Once the source of the illness was discovered, I spent 2 ½ months in the hospital, 9 weeks of which was spent in a rehabilitation center to regain the use of my limbs. While I am extremely grateful to be able to walk again and function relatively normally, I still experience feelings of grief every spring, even 13 years after the fact.

That spring, my eldest child graduated from high school. Due to my illness, I missed his prom, the awards ceremony where he received scholarships, his graduation, his graduation party and his college orientation. My family and school staff did everything they could to include me in the activities with video, photos, and phone calls, but it wasn’t the same.

High school students, especially seniors, are likely going to experience similar feelings of loss as they miss out on prom, graduation, year-end parties, award ceremonies, senior plays, spring sports competitions and state meets. Their loss isn’t due being unable to go, but to the events cancelled as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic.

In an article published in DeseretNews by Marjorie Cortez and Lois M. Collins entitled “We didn’t get to say goodbye: High school seniors mourn abrupt end of 12-year journey”, the authors cited Amanda McNab, licensed clinical social worker with University of Utah’s Crisis and Diversion Services, (in saying) seniors — who will likely not experience rituals that usually culminate K-12 years — are experiencing grief.

“I think grief is an OK word to use when you look at the fact that grief is about processing a loss. For these kids, they’ve been promised that there’s going to be this big celebration after they’ve been in school for so long. This is really a rite of passage that we have ritual around, and now they don’t get to participate in that. It’s a big letdown,” she said.

 Adding further comment, “This is completely unprecedented in so many ways, so it’s not just that adolescents haven’t seen anyone go through it — their parents haven’t seen anyone go through it. There’s no one in their peer group they might be able to talk to. Unprecedented is not strong enough to describe how unusual this really is,” said Anna Gassman-Pines, associate professor of public policy, psychology and neuroscience at Duke University.

These teens verging on adulthood may need the expected and familiar, like normal school activities, more than ever. They won’t get it.

Gassman-Pines said her research and other studies show adolescent mental health suffers amid economic uncertainty. It’s worse when a parent loses a job, but “adolescents are still affected even when people outside their immediate family are the ones affected by the crisis.”

She said national student surveys link crises with risk-taking behaviors and depressive or even suicidal thoughts. That’s in a typical economic downturn. It’s hard to say how much more worrisome the current situation might be.”

Understanding that this loss is a pervasive grief response can clarify the varied emotions and reactions of our high school seniors. As in any grief response, individuals may react very differently, from seemingly not being affected at all, to becoming quite angry and depressed. These reactions will often be fluid, lessened and heightened, in coming weeks, months, and even years to come.

  Here are five ways to help your high school student cope:

1. Realize that your response is not their response.

Let them tell you how they are affected and how they are feeling. There may be teens who are happy that the events are cancelled for one reason or another and others who are completely devastated.

2. Be a good listener.

Reflect feelings that you are hearing. Don’t judge. Talking and telling their story can be healing. Sometimes the story needs to be told repeatedly, so don’t lose patience.

3. Ask what you can do to help.

Creatively brainstorm and make suggestions. Ideas might include making donations to a worthy cause with money that would have been spent on prom; a virtual graduation party using a media platform; delaying celebrations until later when deemed safe to gather as a group.

4. Watch for the signs.

If there are signs of increased risk-taking behavior, depression, or suicidal statements assist the young person in accessing mental health services. Help them understand that they may need a trusted professional to help guide them through their grief.

5. Give reassurance.

Reassure them that they will feel better as time goes on, even if they don’t see that now. Grief is a process that takes time. The losses never go away but become integrated in the experiences of the individual. It is up to the individual to decide how these experiences will shape them in the future.

Missing out on my son’s senior year activities due to my illness shaped my appreciation of every milestone I have been able to participate in with all my children since then. Although I still become sad in the spring, remembering the loss, it is a transient emotion with which I can cope. With the right help, your high school student, or senior, can learn positive ways in which to cope with their sadness and look to their future with hope.

“For I know the plans I have for you,” declares the LORD, “plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.”

Toni Larson, LISW
Director of Counseling for Lutheran Family Service

Do you have a high school senior that could use a little extra help as they experience the letdown and grief? Reach out today to the Lutheran Family Service team of professional, Christian counselors online – https://lutheranfamilyservice.org/contact/ or by phone – 515-251-4900.

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