How to celebrate with the graduate in your life who is grieving the loss of a loved one
I tried to be very direct in the note. “This is not official or sanctioned or anything. But we wanted to give you this as a way to show that you’ve spent years tending to your grief. And that is beautiful.” Then, I tucked the note and a black graduation cord in an envelope, and I dropped off a small stack of paper envelopes at our university’s counseling center.
Sometimes called honor cords, graduation cords are rope-like strands that graduates can wear around their necks along with their graduation cap and gown. Perhaps you made Phi Beta Kappa or graduated magna cum laude, so you were offered a red cord to wear at your graduation ceremony. Or maybe your son was a music student or club leader, and his drab black grown was draped in colorful ropes.
But what if you spent four years of college processing your grief? This was the experience of the students I’ve gotten to know in our campus’s grief support group for students coping with loss. Students joined the group to have a space to talk about the loss of their mother, their father, their brother. Sometimes they were referred to the group by a psychologist or counselor, and sometimes they heard about it through word of mouth. Typically, once they joined our grief group, they stayed until graduation.
“We’re sorry you’re here, but we’re glad you found us.”
“We’re sorry you’re here, but we’re glad you found us.” This was our unofficial motto. Each semester, we had an average of five or so students committed to meeting week after week to talk about their loss. Or their classes. Or their roommate. Or whatever they needed to process in a space filled with people who knew what their hurting heart felt like. These were students who spent Friday night at a crowded party but who spent their sorority’s “mom’s weekend” alone in their dorm room. We talked about hospice care, funerals, lawyers and family dynamics. Occasionally we had activities to do together, and sometimes we simply told stories. We always had a plate of cookies.
When Covid-19 hit and ended in-person meetings, I confess I assumed our grief group just wouldn’t work anymore. I was wrong; it thrived. These students did not miss a virtual meeting. They logged in from all sorts of places: an office-supply closet at a summer internship, a study zone in the library, their messy bedrooms with a cat crawling across their lap. We saw them in pajamas and scrubs as they shared their screens to show us funny memes. It affirmed what I knew to be true: People who are grieving, especially college students, are hungry for space to talk about their grief.
The main reason our group worked so well is that once these students found each other, they took care of each other. They remembered death anniversaries and birthdays, and they checked in on each other frequently. After a particularly sad meeting, for example, a few students made a candy delivery to the dorm room of a member who was struggling. Can you imagine the gift of this sort of connection? To have someone, a peer who has really been there, walk in your grief with you? A group text full of people who have death anniversaries circled on their calendars, too?
People who are grieving, especially college students, are hungry for space to talk about their grief.
Another reason our grief group worked so well, I think, is because my co-facilitator and I are dear friends. Cathy is a counselor in the counseling center on our campus, and I worked as a chaplain. She asked me to help facilitate the group with her, and we did it together for five years. As a chaplain, I was there to be a non-anxious presence. But I was also there in case religion came up and the students wanted to process their loss through the lens of their faith.
Truthfully, faith rarely came up. When it did, my role was often to help unwrap harmful religious platitudes that had been dumped on these young adults over the years. “Your dad is in a better place. Why are you still sad?” or “This was God’s plan.” These sorts of simple one-liners were offered to these 19-year-olds as a balm. They do not work. As people of faith supporting grievers, we can do better.
These graduation cords are one way I am trying to do better. It is a tangible way to honor the time these students dedicated to their tender hearts and the hearts of their grieving peers. Jenna’s mom cannot be at graduation, but this symbol of Jenna’s grief can.
It can be hard to remember that grief is often tangled up with joy—that moving a tassel from one side of a graduation cap to the other might sting in unexpected ways.
I have heard so many stories of these lost mothers, fathers and siblings that I have come to feel like I know them. And this, I believe, is actually the best way to care for these students. The cords are meaningful, but the stories are better. Do you know anyone like these students? Young adults about to cross a major milestone and wishing someone they love could watch them? Sometimes, people are afraid that asking about someone who has died will “remind” the griever of their loss. But Jenna has not forgotten that her mother has died. And she often wishes people would ask about her more, especially as graduation looms and she feels the loss more acutely.
If you do not have a specific griever to reach out to, consider praying for these particular young adults when you attend or hear about graduations this year. It can be hard to remember that grief is often tangled up with joy—that moving a tassel from one side of a graduation cap to the other might sting in unexpected ways. So let us offer up our prayers of the faithful to the mourners this graduation season, and let us ask God to bring peace to their wounded hearts.
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