[Note: though I primarily refer to college or university students in this article, the emotional impact of high school closures on teenagers, particularly for seniors, will be similar in nature and intensity.]
I was surprised at how viscerally I felt the announcement that colleges around the nation would be closing their doors and going virtual for the remainder of the semester. I’m not a student and only tangentially associated with the school down the road from me. Yet the news caused a physical reaction in me, one I only understood once I took the time to ponder how such a sudden, drastic (and wise) measure would have impacted me when I was a college student—and particularly a senior, just weeks from graduation.
(Some non-seniors will probably also experience some form of what I’ll outline below, though without the exacerbating graduation elements. It will feel just as real to them and deserves the same attention and sensitivity.)
Some factors are fairly universal in the minds of most of those who have suddenly had life-as-they-know-it turned upside down. Others are more specific go the people group I work with, MKs or Missionaries’ Kids.
I’ll address the impact of school closures on both the broader population and this micro-population below.
My hope is that you’ll find the following information useful in understanding what some recently-released young people will be feeling as they absorb this new-normal and that you’ll be able to step in to help them process well.
There are few things in life as predictable as one’s college trajectory. From the dreaded freshman-fifteen to changes in academic majors or finding out last minute that you’re two credits short… It all plays out according to an established timeline.
Then comes a virus that upends everything and predictability—one of the primary stabilizing factors of our lives—suddenly morphs into a whirlwind of shifting unknowns. With the dire warnings saturating media and urgent instructions from school administrators, it feels like more than the proverbial rug being pulled out from under college students. It’s the rug being violently shaken, with them still clinging to it, knowing they’re going to have to let go.
Overarching the practical concerns of such cataclysmic change is a deep, sometimes still subconscious sense of loss. This is particularly acute in seniors who are three quarters of the way down the final stretch. They’ve made it through the years leading up to this last semester, this last quarter—the victory lap that would end with a ceremony celebrating their accomplishments. It’s in these months, now taken from them, that they were going crystalize their years of education, the relationships they formed, and the person they became as they learned and developed.
Those landmark events like senior recitals, final projects, crucial games/matches, pre-grad celebrations and goodbye parties… All undone with an email from the college.
It’s hard to define the seismic shift of such an unpredicted, abrupt ending. In many cases, as graduation approached, there would have been a subconscious countdown of “lasts” in the students’ minds—a sacred series of endings that would have gently ushered them toward that cap-and-gown day that stamped The End on this phase of their lives.
Note: To many of them, it’s not just an educational interlude or a four-year parenthesis. It’s a universe of experience, relationship and learning that will never be reproduced.
That’s how brutal these closures will feel to some young adults: being robbed of an ending that felt crucial to encapsulating years of hard work, loving and becoming. An essential and galvanizing springboard to the still-a-bit-scary new life that lies ahead.
It could take a while for destabilized and shocked young adults to fully comprehend and process the enormity of their loss. They’ll likely feel it, but they may not be able to put words to it yet—the emotional impact of amputated time. The abrupt end of treasured relationships that didn’t get those “closure weeks.” The cancelled milestones they spent years investing in and anticipating.
I’ll list below some ways those who love these students can help them, but first, I’d like to zoom in on one particular people group—the one at the center of my life and ministry: Missionaries’ Kids (MKs). Skip to the *** below if this doesn’t apply to you.
Why MKs might feel these closures more intensely:
I’ve written and spoken fairly extensively about the frequency and intensity of loss in the lives of MKs. (See this article for a more in-depth analysis.) We grow up in the constantly shifting world of ministry, where either our family moves every few months or years, or those around us come and go just as frequently. We live with the gnawing awareness that at some point, someone we love will be called elsewhere, run out of finances or have to leave for myriad other reasons.
It’s a simmering sense of loss—current or anticipated—that affects broad areas of our lives.
One of those is the way we enter into and experience relationships. (See this article for a more in-depth analysis of this phenomenon.) When we choose to love, we know it will likely end with pain, because the majority of friendships we’ve known have been severed by early goodbyes. So we attach intensely—we make the most of the time we have, knowing it’s limited and unpredictable. It’s the nature of living and loving in the highly-mobile world of ministry.
Because of this, there’s a certain comfort to a four-year college career. We can measure its increments because they’re written into the academic calendar. We enter senior year knowing exactly how and when it will end. We pace ourselves, spreading the memory-making over the months that lead to that walk down the graduation aisle, grateful that this time we see the end coming.
Then COVID-19 sweeps across the world and obliterates what feels like everything.
And the measured, metronomed process of goodbye’ing gets brutally cut short. We may have experienced it before—the destabilizing, anxiety-saturated frenzy of packing up and getting out. Fast. With little notice. With no time to absorb. With no planning possible further than tomorrow or next week.
But this time was supposed to be different. This is college.
I was supposed to see this ending coming.
For seniors, these closures might feel life-shattering and world-upending. (Even more so for MKs, whose lifelong, accumulated grief already runs so deep.) They were going to go on that camping trip with their roommates to cap off their years together. They were going to give their final performance in front of their peers, professors and family. They were going to interview for that local job. They were going to walk through each ending as it appeared on their calendar and have their farewells said by the time graduation came around.
College students might not even realize how intense their emotions are right now because they haven’t had the time to think about anything other than packing up and getting out.
If you love one of these young adults, be aware that the following—though some of them are contradictory—may be external expressions of grieving. Offer grace, express empathy and extend love as you see them manifesting:
- Lack of motivation
- Excessive sleep
- Lashing out
- Exaggerated emotional responses
- Absence of emotion
- Fixation on numbing activities (social media, video games, shopping, etc.)
Elizabeth Kubler-Ross said, “Grief needs to be witnessed in order to be healed.” It’s a truth that wholly applies to those whose endings have been shockingly canceled.
If you have a good relationship with these young people who have just been robbed of so much, help them to identify the losses and disappointments, the sadness or frustrations they’re feeling. If they’re word- or list-people, help them to write down and talk through their emotions. Give them ample space to process and frequent occasions to speak. Invite self-disclosure, but don’t force it. And if you don’t have that kind of relationship, enlist those who do to walk alongside the hurting people you love in this season.
Perhaps most importantly, pray for them and with them—for comfort, for clarity, for community, for peace and for the courage to step into this unknown moment in their lives. Courage can be the first victim of upheaval.
There’s so much more to say…and this is certainly an incomplete overview of how some of our college students might be processing these events. Nonetheless, I hope it offers a place from which to launch an ongoing conversation with those who have suddenly lost so much.
The following articles further explore healthy ways to address and live with grief—because it may take a while for it lessen. You may find them useful as well.
Tips for MKs in a Season of Grief
Everybody Always Leaves
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