Graduation is important for many reasons.
Some events split your life in half, and surely the global COVID-19 pandemic is one of those times. You’ve likely seen the students graduating without graduation ceremonies. Their families are doing their best to make the moments meaningful with balloons, yard signs or drive-by celebrations, but it’s just not the same. Perhaps you don’t have children in your life who are in this age group—but ceremonies and the opportunity to mark rites of passage—are important to us all.
The children in our communities are strong and resilient, and of course they will survive. In addition, there are larger issues with the pandemic—those of life and death. Cancelling proms, banquets and graduations is important for public health, of course. But it is also appropriate to be sad about these losses. They matter, and the community is impacted when a large proportion of our members are robbed of their lasts.
Sociologically speaking, there are many reasons we’re feeling grief. Some have to do with the students themselves or your relationship to them, but they also have to do with the experience of our community as a whole. Your work-life is embedded in the broader group of which you’re a part—and the situations in which we all find ourselves.
- Their happiness is our happiness. Parents work hard to raise their children and kids are an enormous investment—financially, but even more—emotionally. As the saying goes, “You are only as happy as your most unhappy child.” This is a sad time for our children and so, because we care and because we are invested in their happiness, it is a heartbreaking time for us as well.
- Their achievement is our achievement. In addition to being invested in our children’s happiness, their accomplishment is also something in which we can revel. Their graduation is proof we’ve done something right. Even with our imperfect parenting, they have made it to an important milestone. While the credit goes entirely to the students, parents, caregivers and teachers have had some hand in creating the conditions for their success.
- It takes a village. Communities are strongest when they have shared purpose, common goals and united efforts. The happiness and success of its children is one of the most unifying elements for a community. From the neighbor moms who helped watch over the children as they played together in the yard to the caregivers, teachers, professors and religious leaders who guided their development, a large number of people in the community have a stake in children’s success and progress. Celebrations are for the students, but they also reinforce the bond we share in wanting the best for our children.
- Communities need to mark passages. Rites of passage allow us to mark time and honor progress. As life events occur, celebrations allow us to feel the march of time, experience progress and reinforce a sense of overall continuity reminding us that as things change, they also stay the same in terms of important patterns.
- Legacy matters. Communities also need a sense of time and connections across generations. When the young accomplish a rite of passage, those who are older can appreciate their own experience—years ago—and support the children who come next. The ceremony cements the passing of generational experience, and reinforces the connections and relationships built over time.
- We want to be together. As humans, it is our instinct to gather and this is especially true during times of uncertainty or threat (this was reinforced in a recent paper developed by Ludwigs-Maximilians Universitaet). Getting together in groups provides a sense of safety, reassurance and belonging, and celebrations give us these. When we lack this opportunity, it feels unnatural—it feels as if something is missing. Because it is.
Things are upside down right now and we may long for them to be right side up. In dark moments we will give ourselves permission to grieve for the loss of proms, graduations and celebrations. But in our brighter moments, we’ll remind ourselves of how much we’re learning about the value of relationships, about the importance of our communities and about our own ability to be resilient in the face of really tough times.
We will get through the pandemic. Our children will too. We will likely never be the same, but we will always be a part of a community together. Many of our children have lost their lasts, but they will have bright futures full of firsts. Their new beginnings will be theirs, but they will also be ours as we participate in the power of community and our shared future.