Family, Kids & Relationships

Helping Kids Cope With Grief At the End of the School Year

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As the end of the school year approaches, many children, parents, and educators are feeling a deep sense of sadness and disappointment about everything they’re missing due to the pandemic. The end of the school year is usually a time to showcase progress, celebrate accomplishments, and bond and reflect with classmates, teachers, and coaches. So how can we help kids get some of those feelings of closure without any of the usual events and traditions?

First, it helps to understand why a sense of closure is so important. “Completion of a school year signifies accomplishment, maturing and a personal sense of pride,” Melanie Ross Mills, Ph.D., a relationship counselor, explained to Business Insider. “Helping children and students gain some type of closure is paramount no matter what age or grade.”

Be sure your child knows you’re proud of their accomplishments, and take the time to reflect on them. Give them specific praise for skills they’ve improved upon or conditions they’ve coped with over the past few months, and plan a special dinner or dessert in their honor to celebrate—you can even invite relatives to join in via Zoom.

When almost everything is canceled—including graduations, end-of-year parties, tournaments, performances, and classroom rituals—beyond closure, kids are also missing out on the excitement factor, as well as a larger sense of belonging to a community. Social psychologist Shira Gabriel, Ph.D., has researched the importance of shared rituals. “Rituals give us a feeling of going beyond the ordinary—of having a moment that transcends that, turning events into something special and meaningful,” Gabriel explained. “Our research suggests that people who experience these things a lot are likely to be happier and feel less anxious and depressed.”

Even kids who may not have missed school at all when closures were first announced may be grieving now that June is approaching, in large part because of this lack of shared ritual. Consider asking your child or their teachers or administrators for ways to recreate these rites of passage similar to what usually happens on the last day of school.

No matter how your kids are feeling, one key as a parent is to validate those feelings. In efforts to cheer up your child, don’t gloss over the negative emotions, warned psychotherapist Dana Dorfman, Ph.D.: “Adults may be tempted to highlight the upsides of the pandemic fallout and deny the inherent sense of loss associated with it,” but avoiding those feelings makes them ultimately harder to resolve, she said.

Another strategy is to find out from your child what they’re missing the most, and go from there. For instance, if they’re disappointed about a canceled sports competition or arts performance, think about ways you can help them put those efforts and accomplishments to use. Maybe that means making a video with them of their final solo performance or most-improved skills, and sharing it with relatives, coaches, and mentors. Or coordinating teammates or peers for a remote challenge of some sort, like a virtual talent show or an at-home basketball shooting competition (with extra points for creativity since not everyone has the same access to equipment).

If kids are especially missing social interaction, consider organizing a virtual end-of-the-year party or prom, a parade/tour for greeting teachers or classmates from a distance, or a drive-by graduation party or dance recital. Kids may gain a sense of purpose and connection from helping to plan such an event.

Even if you don’t want to organize a major “event,” you can help your kiddo think of something they can do for the people they miss, since they won’t be able to say goodbye the way they normally would. Send cards to teachers, make thank you videos for coaches, send homemade superlative awards to classmates, or put together a “yearbook” slideshow or playlist to send to friends.

Marking the end-of-the-school-year transition with something meaningful can help kids (and parents) feel less isolated and more like themselves—and as a bonus, will help you distinguish the “school year” from “summer vacation” during these often blurry, chaotic times.

Joanna Eng is a staff writer and digital content specialist at ParentsTogether. She lives with her wife and two kids in New York, where she loves to hike, try new foods, and check out way too many books from the library.