Permission to grieve: Widowed mom and psychologist on losses of 2020 graduates

As someone who knows loss, a widow and mom of a high school senior tells teens and parents their graduation grief is real.

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By Kavita Varma-White

Amy Mezulis admits that she sent out “Save the Date” invitations for her daughter’s June graduation party in October of last year. The mom of two teens also recently ordered announcement cards — using pictures from 17-year-old Anna’s senior photo shoot — even though there’s no formal graduation ceremony happening.

Like many parents of the class of 2020, Mezulis, of Bellevue, Washington, is mourning the end-of-high school milestones her family should have been able to celebrate.

Amy Mezulis made a graduation announcement card for her daughter, even though there is no official ceremony this year.courtesy Amy Mezulis

A professor of clinical psychology at Seattle Pacific University and co-founder of UpLift, a teletherapy practice for teens and young adults, Mezulis has spent much of her time during the COVID-19 pandemic researching adolescent mental health and counseling teens who are feeling loss, loneliness and depression.

And yes, those feelings are real and valid, for teens and parents.

“Grief is defined as the emotional response to loss. And loss does not have to be death,” Mezulis said. “Loss is anything you were planning on, hoping for, had invested in. And to have that taken away from you — that is loss.”

“A lot of our kids are grieving whether they know that’s what they are doing or not.”

A widow's perspective on grief

Professional experience aside, Mezulis is familiar with grief.

In the fall of 2017, she lost her husband, Matt Bencke, to metastatic pancreatic cancer. At 45, Bencke was an avid cyclist and runner, and had biked 200 miles the week before his diagnosis. He died at their home in hospice care just 12 weeks later. Their kids, Anna and Elsie, were 15 and 12.

“It almost broke her. But it didn’t. She knows she got through it. That’s given her a lot of strength."

“You could never in a million years have seen it coming,” says Mezulis, who remains grateful that she and her daughters got to say their goodbyes to him and him to them.

After his death, there were the first birthdays without him to get through and Elsie’s 8th grade graduation. Anna struggled to maintain her focus on high school sports and studies.

“It almost broke her. But it didn’t. And for ever and ever going forward, she knows she got through it. That’s given her a lot of strength,” Mezulis says of Anna, who got accepted into her dream school, Brown University.

The Bencke family in August 2017 on their last family trip before Matt Bencke passed away.courtesy Amy Mezulis

While her academic hard work paid off, Anna has been devastated to miss out on prom and other senior year traditions she had looked forward to.

“I feel cheated out of a graduation and getting to spend more time making memories with friends,” Anna said. “I worked really hard for the first 3 1/2 years of high school thinking I’d have this last semester to have fun with my friends and get graduation and get to celebrate all that hard work, and now that I don’t get that I feel like maybe I wasted my time.”

Teens and the coronavirus pandemic

In March, Mezulis’ team at SPU began a research study of 2500 participants, comparing how teens and young adults ages 14 to 24 were reacting to the pandemic compared to adults ages 25 and older. Though the study is ongoing, Mezulis says a few findings have stood out. Both age groups are experiencing more depression and suicidal thoughts; teens and young adults are showing a greater increase in suicidal thoughts and behavior compared to adults. They are also feeling greater levels of loneliness and anger.

As the school year comes to an end and the “corona-version” of graduation season has started, Mezulis says it’s important to validate what both teens and parents are feeling.

“It’s OK to feel loss. It's OK to feel sad. It’s OK to feel mad and robbed that you didn’t get those events,” she said.

Mezulis with daughters Anna and Elsie at Elsie's 8th grade graduation.courtesy Amy Mezulis

For those who may point out that the pandemic’s devastation — death, unemployment, financial instability —make missing a graduation celebration seem trivial in comparison, Mezulis is here to remind affected teens and parents: “It doesn’t make you selfish. It makes you human.”

“It doesn’t undermine that there are people out there struggling with ‘bigger’ issues… It’s just an investment in our kids and our families that we are noting these losses.”

"Don't ignore the losses"

Considering she feels it herself, Mezulis recognizes that parents are grieving over the loss of graduation traditions, too. Perhaps even more than kids, because parents know from experience what their kids are missing.

“We have an adult perspective of what those rites of passage really mean, what they meant for our families and the role they would have played and how it would wrap up their high school career,” Mezulis said.

Her advice? Don’t ignore the losses; face them head on for what they are. She suggests the process of “time and meaning making.”

Families should identify what it is about the event that is most important that you are not getting. What was it about that celebration or that ritual that you were most looking forward to?

The first step is to make the time to celebrate the event, whether it is family time or time with friends and classmates to celebrate all you have done together.

The second is making the meaningful memory. In-person options may be limited. But there are plenty of others: FaceTime or Zoom; make a scrapbook or photo album; have friends and family create video messages for the graduate; dress up at home and take the family photo with your graduate in cap and gown.

“It’s not the same. It’s not as good,” says Mezulis. “But it’s better than ignoring it or pretending that the event is not happening.”

Coping with what lies ahead

Once graduation is over, teens will face a different challenge: the uncertainty of summer and beyond.

Some kids will be relieved that remote learning and the spring of disappointment is over. On the other hand, there was organization and structure that even remote learning provided. With no school, teens may lose some meaning and purpose to get up in the morning. And for many, this may be amplified by the fact that there is no guarantee that college or future plans will happen in the fall.

Mezulis says parents may need to help teens structure their time and set some expectations. While finding a full-time job may be tough, there are other meaningful options, whether it’s a part-time job in the neighborhood, an online class, an unpaid internship or doing organized tasks around the house.

“It is not healthy to have nothing that organizes your day and your time,” she said.

“You need human connection and you need something that you are working toward or something exciting,” she said. “The key to being happy is not just about having happy, fun things to do in your life, but having a sense of accomplishment, meaning and purpose.”

'He'd be so happy for me'

In the month he was diagnosed with terminal cancer, Mezulis’ husband Matt wrote a moving article for Wired, pledging his desire to “beat the odds.”

“I want to be at every gym meet and soccer game, to see the girls’ high school graduations, send them off to college, walk then down the aisle,” he wrote about daughters Anna and Elsie.

Of course, this year there is no graduation for Anna’s dad to miss.

“It makes me sad that Dad doesn’t get to see me graduate,” she said. “I think he’d have been very excited for me. He’d be so thrilled about Brown. He was always so supportive and I know he’d be so happy for me.”

Anna Bencke will attending Brown University in the fall.courtesy Amy Mezulis

While Mezulis is heartbroken over the cancellation of the graduation party she planned long ago — which was going to be attended by her husband’s family and many of his closest friends from across the country — she realizes it was more for her, and not what Anna necessarily needed.

“Part of what has helped not having the big fuss over graduation is that those are sad days for her, where she notices the absence of her dad. So she’s kind of getting a pass,” Mezulis said. “She doesn’t have to have that poignantly emotional moment where we take that photo and her dad isn’t there.”

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