Helping Young People Cope with Feelings of Loss in a COVID-19 World

SPRINGFIELD — Rites of passage are part of the human experience. Graduations, new jobs, weddings, anniversaries, and other significant milestones are acknowledged and celebrated by families, friends, peers, and larger communities. High-school graduation — the culmination of the long goodbye that is senior year — is a milestone marked this time of year. After proms, senior-day games, spring musicals, and final exams, students traditionally come together as a group one last time. They listen to speeches and share memories, then walk up on a stage, shake hands, and receive a diploma.

“Such events exist with reason and purpose,” said Sara Kendall, vice president of Clinical Operations for MHA Inc. “But this year, traditional milestone celebrations will go missing under the cloud of COVID-19. What was envisioned as a pinnacle of their young lives abruptly switched, with no final sendoff to be relished and shared. Young people are especially resilient and are able to adapt to new, creative ways of recognizing these significant life events.”

Kendall emphasized that high-school students aren’t the only ones missing out. “This year, there are other milestones we won’t be celebrating in the traditional sense. Little ones are transitioning from kindergarten to first grade. Teens are finishing middle school and preparing for high school. What will their summer vacation look like? Young adults are finishing college or graduate school. Some made plans for a first job or enlisted for public service. Families have postponed vacations and weddings, and even had to attend funerals virtually. What adds to the difficulty is the unknown nature of how long life will be altered this way and how life in the post-COVID-19 world will play out.”

Young people in particular are seeing their rites of passage canceled. Being isolated from their friends, they may feel emotionally drained. Parents, teachers, coaches, and other influential adults may themselves struggling with how to respond to the heartbreak so many young people in their lives may be feeling. These adults may be wondering how young people are coping in the face of so many unknowns.

When milestones go missing, Kendall explained, people feel a sense that they will never get these opportunities back or have the chance to experience them in anything like the way they envisioned.

The expectation of what the next chapter of life is supposed to be has been altered. Young people were already working toward the start of a new unknown like college or work. Now they need to prepare for that in a world where things look vastly different and change by the day.

“You may be wondering if you’re asking the right questions,” Kendall said. “Making the time to ask about how a young person feels matters more than the specific questions you may ask. Often, the best approach to encourage someone to talk about how they feel is to be simple and direct. Say something like this: ‘with everything that’s been going on in the world, I’ve been thinking about you, and I’m wondering, how are you?’ And then just listen. You may have to wait for the words to start, so be patient.”

If a young person you care about would like to talk with a mental-health professional about how they’re feeling, MHA’s BestLife Emotional Health and Wellness Center offers TeleWell service delivery, enabling them to connect with a licensed BestLife clinician via smartphone, tablet, or computer. It’s easy to set up the app, and most insurance is accepted. To learn more, call (844) MHA-WELL.