Yes, It Is OK to Feel Grief Over Graduation

Seeing the multitude of  cap and gown photos adorning my Facebook feed, my heart swells with pride for friends reaching a new milestone. It is hard to believe a full year ago, I was bracing myself for the impact of graduating from William & Mary. But my preemptive measures were like trying to prepare for a massive flood by wrapping my entire home in plastic wrap–I still got waterlogged.

This year of transition since graduating has been one of my hardest–and I realize how incredibly lucky I am in saying that. Not everyone has the opportunity to attend college, let alone find a place where they feel such remarkable belonging and connection–so utterly loved and at home. My life is extremely privileged, virtually unmarked by any deep personal loss and filled with stability, opportunity, and love. And yet, to paraphrase my dearest friend’s dads: I have a tissue paper heart. My over-sensitivity coupled with physical separation from loved ones spelled emotional turmoil.

For the first six months after graduation, I felt lost and directionless. I felt lonely, inadequate and overwhelmed in the face of uncertainty. I don’t say this to sound dramatic or to scare recent grads (please don’t be scared!). A year out from graduation, I am now enormously happier. I promise that the transition gets easier.

But I think that with the excitement of looking ahead to shiny newness, we don’t anticipate how truly soul-crushing leaving college can be, if you were as fortunate as I was to deeply love your time there. And we don’t talk about it enough. Often, recent grads expect to be thriving in this new stage of life, just as we had in college. And when we aren’t, we feel ashamed and poorly adjusted–we think we’ve failed.

But I hope that I can encourage you to honor your feelings and tell you that you aren’t failing–you are facing a significant loss. You are losing what Marina Keegan terms “the opposite of loneliness:” a feeling of fellowship and support that sharing a home can bring. You are losing physical closeness with a plethora of people who constantly uplift and inspire you. You are losing the reassurance that someone will always be there to walk you home, to spontaneously share a meal, to lend you their hoodie or umbrella or favorite book, to make all-nighters more bearable, to call with an existential crisis at 2 am.

This is no small thing–you are losing a home.

Denial is numbing. It can be draining to feel deeply, but with this transition, I think that the only way out is through: to accept the loss you are feeling is profound instead of trying to minimize it; to lean into the pain rather than pulling away.

I kept thinking that a rough transition out of college seemed dwarfed by the mountainous tragedies facing the world—violence, abuse, racism, terrorism, poverty, starvation—the list goes on. And while awareness of others’ deep suffering can contribute to mindfulness, it does not change the fact that the loss you are experiencing is very real to you. To paraphrase one of my dear friends, knowing that someone has lost an arm doesn’t make your own paper cut hurt any less. And there is a very fine line between remaining grateful and doing this to such an extent that you invalidate your own, real pain.

I have tried to remind myself that multiple feelings can coexist: You can hold your immense gratitude, while also holding your pain.

I by no means have figured out the “real world,” nor do I have any profound wisdom. But there were things that helped me which I want to share with my beloved graduating friends. One of the biggest comforts was being open about my struggle with this transition. You aren’t the only one: every recent college graduate is struggling in their own ways—I promise you. Some are doing so secretly, hidden behind shining newsfeeds showcasing moments of success, happiness, and being well-adjusted. But these snapshots are like squinting through a keyhole: They could never tell a whole story. One of my friends shared with me that she cried sporadically for about a week after graduation. Another told me she essentially slept through the whole summer. Some may not be as deeply affected. No one’s reaction is “normal.”  Your closest friends may be coping with this transition in different ways, on different timelines. About six months after graduation, I wrote a piece about my struggles with this “flux,” not expecting my personal feelings to resonate with many. But  I was so taken aback by the flood of “me toos.” While it pained me that loved ones could empathize, I took comfort in this mutual vulnerability. An activist named Nancy Donoval speaks of  the power in “sharing the darkness” with someone. While some friendships will naturally drift away, you will find that more will deepen when you lean into your difficulty together.

Along this vein, I encourage you to find your tribe and surround yourself with them. For anyone graduating from William & Mary, this is very literal. Take time to meaningfully connect with people who shared your college home, as often as you can. Live with these people if at all possible, work with them, crash on their sofas, cry with them, be nostalgic with them, call them often. One of the most humbling comforts has been the outpouring of love, encouragement, and empathy from friends who had shared this home with me, or who share the magic of still living on campus. These people intimately understand the specialness of what you have left behind.

While surrounding yourself with your tribe, strive to honor each of your own, distinct journeys. There is a quotation I came across that reads “healing is not linear.” There were days I felt optimistic and energized; there were other days when I could barely get out of bed. Healing from this loss isn’t linear, and neither is the path each of us is now on. Up until now, many of us experienced  the same milestones in tandem: driver’s licenses, prom, high school graduation, starting college, roommate conflicts and sleepless nights and first heartbreaks and first loves, college graduation. And now—we have branched off into countless different paths simultaneously: graduate school, marriage, service years, internships, new jobs, living at home, floating. And I think we need to remind ourselves and each other how very personal and non-linear these paths have become. Nothing is more “right” or worthy, and every path deserves gentleness and time, patience and love.

My sister and I have talked about living in gray areas: when things aren’t clearly defined in the crispness of black and white. This comprises the majority of life. You’re in gray now, transforming from your college-student version of yourself. Remind yourself that you aren’t expected to have everything figured out and remember to celebrate small victories, too—finishing a job application, learning a new skill, making a new friend.

Another saving grace has been striving to find ways to give to others. In David Foster Wallace’s “This is Water” speech, he talks about the tendency to become trapped in our default self-centeredness, and the importance of consciously overriding this default to learn how to think compassionately. In college, our default self-centeredness was interrupted constantly—almost like a new default of thinking outside of ourselves was created. We had the rare gift of living with a cohort of peers about whom we cared deeply, that we often strove to consider their needs and feelings almost instinctively. We poured ourselves into causes and organizations much bigger than ourselves, and into supporting each other—all of which became integral components of our identities and self-worth. Strive to replicate that compassion and connection, be it through volunteering, a job, or through your own, unaffiliated acts of service. About three months ago, I was unbelievably blessed when a teaching job fell into my lap, sheerly out of pure luck and a high school’s desperation. I am wildly happier now that my days of more inward thoughts have now turned outward—considering the lives of roughly 150 hilarious, honest, messy, occasionally frustrating but overwhelmingly lovable humans I attempt  to teach. Additionally, the predictable life structure that such opportunities can provide may also be helpful for coping during this sometimes uncertain transition.

Above all, take care of yourself. This year has reinforced how important self-care is, and how much I continue to struggle with it. I implore you above all else to be gentle with yourself and give yourself permission to flounder. There is a David Foster Wallace quote that I have repeated many times: 

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To treat ourselves the way we would treat a really good, precious friend. Or a tiny child of ours that we absolutely loved more than life itself. And I think it’s probably possible to achieve that. I think part of the job we’re here for is to learn how to do it.

Revel in anything that nourishes your soul in a healthy way. Words are my love language, and so words of Cheryl Strayed, Marina Keegan, David Foster Wallace and Sarah Kay have given me immense comfort—and so has writing and journaling. Some of my friends have found peace in creative pursuits such as photography, poetry, music, or baking. Humans who are much more actively inclined than I am have found calm in yoga, long walks, running, or dancing. Give the tiny, precious child inside you something to rejoice in.

And hold fast to the truest of true comforts that things will improve with the passage of time—the loss will feel less immediate; you will grow more comfortable. I have visited my sister on campus  multiple times since graduation, and each time, the overwhelming feeling was a sad nostalgia. However, when I visited in April, I felt something different. It was a gorgeous day with fairy tale clouds against piercing blue, and picturesque sunshine filtered through the trees, making even our boxy library look majestic. And in absorbing it all, a new, overwhelming sense of gratitude washed over me. My gratitude was now louder than the melancholy. I felt a new sense of peace.

In one of my favorite books Tiny Beautiful Things (what I aspire to call my “life manual”), a divorced, 64-year-old man writes to Cheryl Strayed asking for her insight on proceeding with a new romantic interest.  He talks about how desperately he wants to  love and be loved and feel intimately connected with someone. But he worries that in sharing  this,  he will scare her away. Cheryl Strayed replies, “Your longing for love is only one part of you. I know that it feels gigantic when you are all alone writing to me…but don’t let your need be the only thing you show.” She tells him that “We have to be whole people…even if we have to make it up for a while.”

Your loss of your college home and college self is only one part of you, though it may feel gaping now. And it feels this way because you gave of yourself so fully and cared so much. Leaving a home where you found your niche and you felt so vibrantly alive can make you feel like part of you is missing now by comparison. But continually remind yourself that you are still whole. Beginning college was a new start, too, and you have grown so much since your wide-eyed freshman self. You have that same strength inside of you to continue  forging another new beginning along your remarkable path—the courage to love fully, feel deeply and to give of and care for yourself, even when you feel temporarily adrift. And know that the magic of college will continue to influence your life: in the lasting relationships whose support you continue to revel in; in the ways you have grown with this place; in the wisdom college friends and experiences have instilled in you—these are things that help make you whole. Go out and show your full, whole self to the world.

By Drea Aron-Schiavone

Drea is an overanalyzing, people-loving, heart-on-sleeve introvert who will happily gush over the words in a beautifully moving phrase, sentence, or text message with you any hour of the day. She is currently striving to emulate New Girl’s Jessica Day as she attempts to teach art to high schoolers who are way too cool for her. She is inspired by the resilience and genuine hearts of small humans, and hopes to pursue a future as a social worker, working with children who have survived trauma and abuse. Some of her favorite things include her family, William & Mary, handwritten letters, Ernest Hemingway, long drives with friends, Ed Sheeran, and sending text messages that are way too long.

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