By Nicole Howe

Notes from the Pandemic: When Graduation Feels Like Grief

This pandemic isn’t what we anticipated when this academic year started. We are working with all kinds of new realities and griefs, big and small. It might be tempting to minimize the other things we’re mourning when people are dying, but the “other” griefs are real too. Nicole Howe helps us think about what we’ve lost by not having a graduation ceremony.

Even under the best conditions, graduation can usher in a mix of bittersweet emotions. I can only imagine how those feelings might be compounded, now that your celebrations have been canceled or deferred. Hope deferred makes a heart sick.  

It was just over a year ago that I graduated from my Master’s program. As I donned my cap and gown, I was also hit with profound sadness at the thought of closing this treasured chapter of my life. Walking across the stage to accept my diploma was a mountaintop experience. But even as I shook hands with classmates and professors and celebrated my accomplishment, I couldn’t help thinking about the climb back down. What will I do now? Will I lose touch with my peers and mentors? How will I continue learning and growing, both spiritually and academically? Am I going to feel lonely

For many of us, the choice to further our education was born out of a sense of calling, so the pursuit is a deeply personal one. I found pieces of myself in grad school I never realized were missing. I had the opportunity to pursue topics that interested me, develop meaningful relationships with classmates and professors, and worship God with both my heart and my mind. School was a spiritual respite where I experienced life-changing growth and renewal. It was rigorous and physically demanding, but it was also soul-filling and life-giving. It pushed me to try things I never would have tried, if it weren’t for the accountability and discipline that I received in a structured environment. I truly loved it, and seeing it come to an end left a hole in my schedule and my heart. 

The months following my ceremony were spent hobbling through my days a bit, feeling disoriented and unsure of what to do next. My graduation was in December, and I appreciated the gift of coming home to Christmas celebrations and family gatherings. But eventually January came, and those winter months felt like slogging through uncharted territory without a guide. I hadn’t realized how much the rhythms of my school life had acted as a sort of metronome, keeping time for me and creating a much-needed sense of structure and purpose. I missed it all. 

I also battled against a perpetual sense of pressure. Pressure to create, to find new projects, to just do something with all that I had learned. Some of this was driven by sheer enthusiasm to continue my learning journey; some was simply that I had become accustomed to knowing my next steps, and I was desperate to answer the question, “What now?” For the first time in three years, I couldn’t see a clear path forward, a reality I found distressing. I feared the unknown.

Though it may catch you off guard, feeling let-down, empty, or even afraid, are all understandable emotions in response to this season of transition — even if you thought you were ready. Be kind to yourself. Many of you are saying goodbye to a very meaningful chapter in your lives, filled with people and experiences you truly loved, and without a ceremony to mark the transition. 

I know this pandemic is a final class you didn’t expect or sign up for, but God is here even now. Especially now. 

He meets us in dark places. This truth came alive to me during a performance of Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 5 by the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. It was my first experience with this kind of live performance, and I was completely enthralled. It wasn’t long before the magnificent dance of the conductor grabbed my attention.  I’d never seen an orchestra from this vantage point before. For most theater performances, the orchestra is tucked away below the stage in something called “the pit.” Out of view from both the stage performers and the audience, it’s easy for the beautiful music of the pit to go unnoticed. But the pit is where the conductor is. I watched in awe, as he tirelessly spent himself for the sake of the performance. As his hands glided through the air, back and forth, purposefully and passionately, I realized that not a single musician was hidden from his gaze.

Life is filled with question marks these days, but one thing feels sure: this final leg of your journey is likely turning out very different from what you expected. You have labored long and hard. You have studied and wrestled. You have pushed through the sleepless nights, the juggling of calendars, and the making of sacrifices. You have stretched your mind and expanded your soul, and you have dreamed big dreams of what this season would look like and what your next steps might be. 

And now your plans for celebration have been postponed or canceled altogether. There will be no ceremonies, no gatherings to celebrate your hard-won accomplishment, no tossing a cap into the air among a flurry of friends and family. The great crescendo of so many years of hard work seems to be culminating in a quiet whimper, a fade to black with little notice or attention. Your next steps now seem unsure. And you may feel grief when you had expected joy.

Sometimes, giving ourselves permission to grieve is easier said than done. With so many suffering today from sickness, job loss, and even death, we may feel guilty or insensitive for grieving over seemingly trivial losses. We may be tempted to minimize our negative feelings in the name of compassion or gratitude. We worry our grief will eclipse our joy. However, in a season with so much to celebrate and so much to mourn, it may help to remember that we have permission to hold two things in tension. Joy and sorrow. Lament and praise. Big losses and small. You do not have to choose.

God is near in both. You are never hidden from his gaze. 

After much protesting, I eventually began to embrace my grief, and the hole left behind after graduation, rather than rushing to fix or fill it. I took a break from any new projects and simply allowed the hollow space to settle in for a little while. I gave myself permission to cry. I asked God for courage to let go. It was uncomfortable and unnerving and slow. But in time, God began to fill in those empty places, guiding me into a new, life-giving season. Projects and opportunities came my way. I maintained relationships with my classmates and professors. I found new books to devour and adore, new rhythms to structure my days. 

I am still loving God with my heart and my mind; it just looks different now. And in his perfect time and mysterious way, he is loving me.  

Hope deferred makes a heart sick, but a longing fulfilled is a tree of life. Even as we grieve, may we yet cling to the truth that our hope is not ultimately in answered questions or new opportunities. Or graduation ceremonies (though they are nice). What we really long for is the guiding, loving Presence of God. And this is a longing he never fails to fulfill. 

Even now. Especially now.

About the Author

Nicole Howe is a writer, speaker, wife, and homeschooling mama to four kiddos. She serves as editor and regular contributor for the quarterly publication An Unexpected Journal and is a regular contributor for the online magazine Cultivating. She holds a Masters Degree in Cultural Apologetics from Houston Baptist University where she discovered the power of the imagination to restore awe and wonder to her floundering faith. When she's not devouring books, Nicole loves singing, pretending to be a chef, and performing Improv at her local theater.

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