It’s 10:00 AM on a Tuesday and I sit down in front of my computer to have a virtual counseling session with a high school senior. The WiFi drops, comes back on again, then drops again. This is my new reality: trying to be present and capture the emotional intensity of the many kids who are struggling during this pandemic. The session before, I made feelings slime with an eight-year-old and we talked about her sadness due to missing friends, her teacher and that she can’t say goodbye to her third grade classroom. The session I’m currently on however, has a different tone.
The week of March 9th, the same teenager sat on the couch in my office, with my 90 pound Goldendoodle, Walter, laying on her lap. She was excited about her Spring Break trip to Florida the following week (one she’d been planning for months) and so happy to have one final trip with her best friends. She had already packed, carefully deciding what she would wear everyday, and created an itinerary for she and her friends to follow so they could make the most of their experience. We scheduled our next session for the week of March 23rd and she gave Walter a final squeeze and said, “see you in two weeks, sweet boy.”
But she didn’t see Walter in two weeks. By that time, the world had turned upside down. I didn’t go to my office. She didn’t go to school and we had our next counseling session behind a screen. Her Florida trip had been cancelled and she was doing this new thing called “online school.” Although it was chaotic and bizarre, she got to sleep in everyday. She was enjoying the opportunity to catch up on sleep and do things she hadn’t had time for before, like clean her room. During her free time, she was searching for Prom dresses online because her mom wouldn’t let her go to the store because of this thing called COVID-19.
That was eight weeks ago.
Since then, she’s been collecting losses. First, she lost her final track season. Next, it was Prom. Then, senior skip day got cancelled and she learned she wouldn’t be going back to school at all. She would be doing online school for the rest of the year and would be saying goodbye to her teachers over Zoom. Last week she lost graduation. The moment she’d been looking forward to, to walk across the stage and get the diploma she’d been working so hard for, would be done online. And then she asked the dreaded question, “what if I don’t get to have my first semester of college on campus? What if I have to stay home and take classes online?”
One thing I’ve learned about grief over the years is that you can only grieve when you’re safe enough to feel the feelings that go along with it. Carl Jung says, “grief is letting go of the future you’ll never have,” and when you feel and understand you’ve lost something, there will be feelings of sadness that come with it. But the type of grief that this pandemic has thrown at us is “complicated grief” because it is unrelenting. It keeps coming and just when you think you’ve found your footing, the rug is swept out from under you again.
How will the teens of this pandemic deal with all of this loss? Will they look back at this bizarre time with sadness? Will they still be confused by how the world seemed to turn upside down overnight? Will they still long for the trips, sports seasons and final goodbyes to their high schools? It largely depends on how they find closure during this time.
Some are finding closure by compiling pictures from the last 4 years and making CD’s to send to all of their friends. Some are writing letters instead of sending text messages. Others are making custom vinyl records with their favorite songs and making extra copies for their closest friends. In whatever form, the importance of having some type of closure is imperative to help kids start the path to healing.
If you’re supporting a teen during this time, know that complicated grief wreaks havoc on emotions. You may see a different kid every time they leave their room. This is the rollercoaster of emotions that comes with losing all sense of normalcy during an already hormonal, emotional and uncertain time. If you do get to have some input on how they deal with their loss, encourage a way to say goodbye. Help them find concrete ways to deal with their abstract emotions like making something tangible that can represent the loss. Being able to have something to see and hold eases the mind and offers relief when everything seems out of control.
In time, all that is lost will be reframed in the mind. The story of grief is ever changing and maybe when your teenager’s own kids come home from school talking about the pandemic of 2020, they’ll be able to pull out a vinyl record and say, “I survived that pandemic and here’s what I was listening to.”
Let us all be flexible in how we deal with these losses, and in the wise words of Anne Lamott: When hope is not pinned wriggling onto a shiny image or expectation, it sometimes floats forth and opens.
Hang in there everyone,