By Dr. Robin F. Goodman, VOICES Director of Family Programs
Caps and gowns are in abundance in May and June – seen on everyone from preschoolers as they participate in their moving up celebrations to high school and college students who are embarking on new phases of life. The graduation rite of passage signifies the completion of a set of accomplishments and the beginning of new challenges. The transition from what has been comfortable and familiar to the unknown can be exciting yet bring on some uneasiness. For families in which a loved one died on September 11th, a graduation can be a bittersweet event. While others may be filled with joy, the graduate and family members who are missing someone special may be surprised by an array of emotions – you may feel angry at not being able to share the day with a significant person, resentful of others who did not endure the tragedy of 9/11, or proud of children moving on. However, it is important to celebrate what has been achieved, especially under such difficult circumstances. Graduations mark how far one has come and all the effort required to reach a goal. The following are some things to keep in mind:
• Take stock of the graduate’s academic and emotional achievement. It is a time to congratulate one another for doing what was needed to reach this point.
• If possible, find a way to include the person who died in some meaningful way. It might be having a favorite food of the person who died or recalling a story related to school – cheering the graduate on during a team game or even fighting over homework.
• Take the time to thank those in your support network – teachers, coaches, friends, family, neighbors - who were particularly helpful in your reaching this milestone.
• Look in all directions.
• Take the time to look back to remember days together with loved ones.
• Look at the here and now to appreciate important relationships and even small day-to-day achievements.
• Look towards the future considering the needs of different individuals in the family.
• Help the graduate take the next steps. When moving to a new school or when meeting new friends, children and teens can benefit from thinking ahead about how to handle private information and answer questions about 9/11.
It can be helpful to find personal meaning in 9/11, perhaps thinking of a ways to remember or honor the person that died. Such meaning can take different forms; volunteering at an organization that was important to the person who died, following through on a commitment to a parent who always believed in the value of education. It is natural to be sad and upset on happy occasions when you long to share it with those who have died.
Hopefully there are now more bright days than dark, but there is no particular graduation from grief. Understand that throughout life, during times of celebration or even at unexpected times during a routine day, difficult feelings will resurface. Give yourself permission to experience the feelings, realizing the pain is a reminder of the person’s place in your heart.