Aloha, Graduate: Exploring Grief During Times of Transition

Graduate and family taking self photoIn all change, there is an element of loss. However, this does not mean that we always greet loss with sorrow and yearning. There are certainly people, places, and things in life we would gladly lose—and do a happy dance about it, to boot!

Grief, when broadly defined, is any reaction to loss. It can range from the feeling you get when you cannot find your keys to losing someone in a breakup—or through death. Yet, when we feel freed by a loss or disallowed to grieve, these appear unusual to most people and can make the bereaved feel guilty, confused, and angry.

Liberating Loss

Consider the concept of “liberating loss.” In this type of grief, the experience may largely be relief—relief that a parent is no longer suffering or relief that a spouse isn’t alive anymore to abuse the survivor, or relief that a partner can’t make demands on the griever about what to cook or what job to get.

This type of grief can be difficult to talk about, because it appears to be callous and wrong to be relieved that someone’s life has ended. It takes a nonjudgmental ear to hear someone’s silver lining without shaming that person into behaving as expected.

The truth is, the bereaved may actually feel both sadness and relief—but it would be a kindness for them to be able to express both. Optimism is usually a positive indicator of one’s resilience and ability to cope, and in the case of liberating losses, it is nothing short of walking to the end of a dark tunnel by looking for, and acknowledging, the bright side.

Disenfranchised Grief

Another kind of grief is known as “disenfranchised grief.” Similar to the previous example, it is a struggle to share because not only is it considered unacceptable, it is thought of as nonexistent! Disenfranchised grief might be the loss experienced by someone having an extramarital affair whose lover dies. Would this secret survivor be allowed at the funeral? Do these grievers get to share their grief with others who knew the person, or do they have to keep it hidden and suffer in isolation and silence?

This sort of invalidated grief also arises when people are supposed to be separated emotionally, such as estranged family members or a divorced couple, and someone dies or gets remarried to the shock and sadness of the other person. It is hard to get sympathy when people think, “Well, you couldn’t stand to be in the same room” or “You divorced him, why do you care?”

Consider also when someone loses a pet or animal companion and grieves deeply. “It’s not the same as losing a person” is often whispered, or the perennial advice, “Just get another one.” A broken heart is a broken heart, and attempting to rationalize sadness away by virtue of comparison usually is not helpful.

The idea that someone does not have the right to feel any grief, or should not feel any grief, can be alienating, confusing, and angering for the bereaved. In terms of a mourner expressing and sharing this grief with others, again, it takes a nonjudgmental and usually neutral, noninvolved party to listen to and acknowledge this particular loss and the pain, both personal and social, that can come from it.

Grief During Graduation

Understanding grief as a reaction to loss and change, and understanding that there can be contradictory and unexpected grief reactions, such as a feeling of relief or invalidation, might help in coping with the annual changes those around us go through on an institutional level: graduation!

During graduations and other events that mark transition, there are tears and cheers for the loss of childhood and the entrance into adulthood, a switch of careers, and an achievement of dreams. Graduation is a social and physical representation of an invisible, inward experience. This type of experience happens in schools, in churches and temples, and at weddings. And what a mix of emotions there are during these ceremonies! When we lose one thing and gain another, when we feel as if we should only be happy and have no right to our sadness, our feelings may be hard to sort out.

Aloha, as the Hawaiians say, to this grief. Aloha, meaning both hello and goodbye!

© Copyright 2012 GoodTherapy.org. All rights reserved. Permission to publish granted by Ivan Chan, MA, MFTi, therapist in Santa Cruz, California

The preceding article was solely written by the author named above. Any views and opinions expressed are not necessarily shared by GoodTherapy.org. Questions or concerns about the preceding article can be directed to the author or posted as a comment below.

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  • deacon

    deacon

    June 12th, 2012 at 3:41 PM

    I love the whole concept that aloha means hello and goodbye. For the graduate it is hello to your new life, leaving behind a little of the old and forging ahead with the new.

    For the parents it is about regaining the house and their time a little for themselves again and watching their child morph into the young adult that they have proudly raised.

    There will be some tears, but there will also be a whole lot of smiles. I think that in the end everyone can find a way to be happy with the journey.

  • Ivan Chan

    Ivan Chan

    June 12th, 2012 at 5:06 PM

    Hi Deacon,

    Thanks for taking the time to reflect and post on my article! I appreciate it, and so will other readers.

    Take care,

    Ivan

  • Brandon.K

    Brandon.K

    June 12th, 2012 at 5:30 PM

    Graduating this year and although I’ve been looking forward to this since years it now feels weird that college is coming to an end, there is a little fear about all the changes that are going to come and the work expectations and everything, its pretty crazy.

  • Ivan Chan

    Ivan Chan

    June 12th, 2012 at 10:42 PM

    Hi Brandon,

    It can be intimidating!

    Are you getting any support in navigating post-graduation?

    Take care,

    Ivan

  • Liam

    Liam

    June 13th, 2012 at 4:27 AM

    Oh, my mom was a wreck the day I graduated from college. I don’t really know why as I had gone to school for all four years several hundred miles away from home and typically only came home on major holidays and a few summers- the others I stayed and worked and took classes. But she really took the graduating pretty hard, much harder than I would have thought. I guess I was thinking that she and dad would be happy, you know I was off of their payroll so to speak. But for her she said it felt like she was losing me, and I guess in some sense she is but at the same time this is the time that I have envisioned being able to go to her the most and ask for advice and guidance as I look for a job, a home, etc. How do I make her see that without bringing on the tears?

  • Ivan Chan

    Ivan Chan

    June 13th, 2012 at 8:19 AM

    Dear Liam,

    Thanks for commenting!

    For parents, when a child grows up and eventually “goes off the payroll” (i love that expression!), it can be one of the last tangible connections parents can have with a child to know that they’re still needed. In the West, financial independence and college graduation is usually related to emotional and physical independence and individuality–it spells separation, the end of childhood (which is marked by dependency), and this can be painful and scary for parents and sometimes adult children, too.

    When you have that conversation with your mom again, it may be difficult to prevent the tears. Let them come; acknowledge the tears and ask her to share her fears and sadness with you. After she is finished, assure her that you’ve listened, empathize with her sadness as a parent by letting her know you can only imagine what it’s like for her to go through this, and share your perspective and intentions (again) with her.

    Keep in mind that she may need more comforting than reasoning, but it will still be important for her to know that financial independence and college graduation for you does not mean emotional disconnection or that she is no longer needed in your life–just the opposite!

    You two sound like you have a strong relationship, and this will guide both of you in building a bridge over this seemingly troubled water.

    If she appears unable to listen to you, or to calm down during the conversation, this may indicate that she needs more time to express her grief about your growing independence from her.

    If she has continued difficulty, she may want to see someone who can explore and listen to her fears and sadness with her. This can be a partner, family member (another parent or elder), or even a counselor. You may be too close to the situation for her to hear you just yet. (Going to a counseling session together may help you both be heard, understood, and reassured.)

    I hope this helps!

    Take care,

    Ivan

  • Liam

    Liam

    June 14th, 2012 at 6:36 AM

    Thanks Ivan. I have asked her to read this article as well as your response so we will see what happens from here. I know that I am the last to leave the proverbial nest, but I honestly had no idea that she would be so sad. I guess I just thought that they would be happy for me and the opportunities that I now have. And I know that in some ways I feel kind of resentful I suppose that she doesn’t seem to want to share in that happiness. I know that it will pass and things will get better, but for now it’s still hard on all of us.

  • Ivan Chan

    Ivan Chan

    June 14th, 2012 at 9:15 AM

    Hi Liam,

    Ah, the last one to leave the nest, eh? That’s another hard one for parents.

    I get the feeling resentful over what seems like an unwillingness to share your happiness and excitement about the future (and your accomplishment of graduating–congratulations, by the way!). You’re experiencing directly how people grieve losses differently!

    As you ask your mom to step in your shoes (be happy for you and share in the excitement of future opportunities), that you also step into her shoes (feeling sad, possibly abandoned, afraid of disconnection and being unnecessary in your life). This might mitigate your feeling of resentment a little. Even parents can be selfish or self-absorbed sometimes when it comes to their kids; your mom may just be lost in her feelings for now.

    Remember, you’re the last one to leave the nest. That leaves you the open sky, and her the *empty* nest. It can be tough!

    Take care,

    Ivan

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