Grief and Graduation

Social media is beginning to fill up with pictures of adults (young and old) dressed in cap and gown as is typical this time of year. Graduation signs are popping up on front lawns. What is not typical is that these photos are being taken on front porches, around dining room tables, and in Zoom chats. These milestones in a person’s life still need to be marked. What are ways a faith community can lift up graduates (and their families)?

There have been plenty of articles written in the past few weeks about this topic. The Fuller Youth Institute recently posted “Reinventing Graduation: 3 ways to honor milestones in the midst of pandemic” by Hannah Lee Sandoval, offering some interesting ways to connect with graduates after school is out. And in this article from Vox, five soon-to-be graduates share how they are feeling and adapting amidst the grief and loss.

In a previous post, Ideas & Resources for Lament and Thanksgiving, I shared a curated list of prayers (laments and thanksgivings) along with processes to help (youth especially) express their grief in what many have called “being robbed” of a rite of passage due to social distancing and quarantine due to COVID-19.

“We are also beginning to grieve for the passing of a way of life, because however much we want things to go ‘back to normal’, we also recognise at some level that many of them never will. ”

The above quote is from This Too Shall Pass: Mourning Collective Loss in the Time of COVID-19, a document put together by The Collective Psychology Project, a collaborative inquiry into how psychology and politics can be brought together in new, creative ways that help us to become a “Larger Us” instead of a “Them-and-Us.” Within this document they share how to embrace and live out the following eight lessons in fuller detail. In summary, they offer this:

Eight Lessons About Grief

  1. Embrace grief. We must move further into grief rather than seeking to avoid it, for if we turn away from it then we increase our pain and fear.
  2. This will get worse before it gets better. After disasters, an initial “honeymoon” stage of solidarity and hope is often followed by a “disillu- sionment” stage of exhaustion, stress, and feelings of abandonment. We may well encounter the same.
  3. There is more collective grief to come. With climate breakdown and mass extinction still gathering pace, Covid-19 is the start of a much deeper process of grieving that will unfold over years to come.
  4. Grief is not an equaliser. Covid-19 is already creating powerful new forms of inequality, and grief and bereavement are no less prone to the effects of social injustice than anything else.
  5. We need to grieve together. Grieving for loss is by definition a relation- al experience, and in most other societies grieving and mourning are far more shared experiences than they are for us in the West.
  6. Learn from how our ancestors grieved. Every culture has its own rich and deep history of ritual for loss – and ours is like a treasure house waiting to be rediscovered.
  7. Invent new rituals and practices to deal with collective loss. While myths cannot be designed from scratch, rituals and other communal griev- ing practices definitely can.
  8. Remember that loss is part of the natural cycle. If we are able to understand loss as a form of renewal, we can begin to understand and appreciate life as a single natural process, ever in flux, in motion

A Service with Graduates

Following a webinar I attended hosted by the Lifelong Learning program at Virginia Theological Seminary entitled “Sunday, Major Feasts, & Life Passages Under Quarantine,” I learned of an educator who created a baccalaureate liturgy for a religious school setting. Robert Zappulla created a worship service in honor of graduates incorporating elements from a commencement ceremony he had previously designed for his middle school in New York City. Using The Book of Common Prayer 1979, Enriching Our Worship 1, the Book of Occasional Service 2018, and original material he developed, he created a robust resource that he is offering to others to use or adapt. Rob has served as director of religious education, liturgy, and music in parishes as well as a public school teacher and administrator. He is a member of the Church of the Holy Apostles in Manhattan, also participating at All Saints, near his home in Brooklyn, NY. If you choose to use or adapt this liturgy, Rob would appreciate learning about what you did. (Or you can share in the comments below this post.)

In light of the above recommendations for acknowledging grief and inventing new rituals to mark milestones during this time of isolation, Rob’s resource is spot-on and gives wonderful ideas that a congregation or school can build upon and adapt. Some of his ideas include how to create the following:

  • input from parents and graduates
  • a slide show of graduates
  • a word from a special guest (keynote speaker)
  • musical interludes
  • a “procession” of graduates
  • a musical performance
  • acknowledgments
  • a valedictorian’s address
  • a commissioning

Download the “A Service with Graduates under Quarantine 2020” by Robert Zapulla that includes a presider’s Virtual Commencement Planner. If you use it or adapt it for your own setting, please let us know!

Download the Commencement Worship Bulletin.


Quote from “This Too Shall Pass” by Alex Evans, Casper ter Kuile, and Ivor Williams (The Collective Psychology Project, p. 7); top photo by Jen Theodore on Unsplash; graduate photo by Terrence Thomas on Unsplash.

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