Graduation is a momentous occasion marking the end of one journey and the start of a new one. Most of us go through a series of different “graduations” in one form or another throughout our lives. Whether you’re graduating from high school, military basic training, college or even just starting a new phase, it’s important to be mindful of the journey while you’re on it, and take time to reflect on where you’ve been, before jumping ahead to the next step. Making the effort to fully close one door behind you, before opening the next one, brings a stronger sense of security and readiness to welcome your new journey.
Although rarely discussed, it is normal to experience grief as we reflect on our lives and acknowledge the reality that the past is forever behind us. Starting a new phase inevitably means that we must leave certain things behind.
This can bring feelings of loss, and if there’s an emptiness in our hearts that hasn’t been addressed, we will be held back from fully embracing the future and all its possibilities. Compounding this, the new opportunities and uncertainties to come, will often challenge us to rise to the occasion and discover personal growth from within.
Despite how prepared we may think we are; graduation can be a bit of a shock when the date of the ceremony actually arrives. Embarking on a new path can bring excitement, and sometimes even some anxiety. Even if we have a job lined up, a down payment on a new home or other specific arrangements laid out in place, graduation itself may spark a deeper fear of what’s to come. It may carry sadness for the chapter that’s being closed.
When we apply the tools of the Grief Recovery Method to our losses in life (in this case the loss of our past selves) we can begin to move toward feeling whole in order to continue on steady feet. We may experience grief from the loss of guidance and support provided by teachers, parents and mentors during our educational and growing years. Part of growing up is facing the harsh reality that we must rely on ourselves for success and survival. As adults, we are challenged to look inward instead of relying on outside sources to navigate life’s curveballs.
Even with adequate schooling or training, are we ever really ready to embrace an entirely new phase of our life?
We may never feel fully prepared to identify ourselves as an expert in our field, the parent of a newborn, a retired senior citizen, or whatever the next step is, until we actually live it. It’s the real-world experience and understanding of our past that builds our confidence to thrive during the next time of life. We must be willing to stumble a bit when stepping forward, because the struggle prepares us for the next string of experiences to come.
Developing self-assuredness relies on acknowledging the hard work that we did to prepare for where we are headed. Graduation is a final step in getting ready for a new role because it gives us a chance to celebrate our past. The positive momentum from graduation can help us tackle the unknown future. Along with all the work we do academically or physically leading up to a “graduation,” we should also take steps to tie up loose ends before we move on—meaning, the social and emotional connections we will be saying goodbye to.
A few ideas for putting this into action include:
- Collecting phone numbers and email addresses for the people you want to keep in touch with
- Gathering photographs in an album of your favorite memories from this time
- Putting together a memory box with keepsakes from your experiences
- Displaying evidence of your work, such as framing certificates that you are proud of
- Putting together a binder of published works or big projects
- Meeting with a friend to reflect on the positive things you gained during this phase of life
Thinking ahead about what you are going to miss when you leave will help you better prepare for the transition.
You may want to do certain activities or visit a special place one last time—whether it’s watching a sporting event from the student section or having a meal at your favorite restaurant on campus. Take time to enjoy the experience and establish closure during the season of graduation. This way, changes won’t seem so sudden or catch you off guard.
While these examples apply more to traditional academic graduations, we can take similar steps to prepare for other changes we all experience when “graduating” from various phases including childhood to adulthood, parenthood to empty nesters, or even apartment-renter to homeowner.
Childhood especially, is a magical time where we see the world in a way that we can never really experience again. It’s not uncommon for teenagers or adults to feel sadness for the loss of a carefree lifestyle. The burden of adulthood can weigh heavier on us if we haven’t made peace with the fact that staying in childhood isn’t an option. Properly grieving the loss of our childhoods allows us to successfully take on the world as adults. No matter the specific example being discussed, we must make peace with our past to embrace our future.
In our modern world, we spend so much time focusing on end results. Whether it’s getting through school, finishing our training, completing a dissertation or getting a promotion, we can forget to enjoy the time and effort it takes us to get there. When graduation arrives, the journey can seem like a blur. Only after it’s all over, may we think back and realize that we actually miss our time in training.
Afterall, once we have a graduation or an achievement, we are moving into another journey. It’s not the finale but the progression to something new. Learning to practice being mindful in the present, and productively reflecting on the past, is all part of the process of being able to embark on new challenges.
Not acknowledging our emotions in the journey is part of the reason why we end up feeling surprised if graduations do bring us sadness. There is usually a part of us that misses being in the midst of development or in the working stage of accomplishing a goal. When we’re in a process (school, training etc.) we are growing, learning, competing and achieving. This breeds a pattern of effort, followed by reward. After we complete this phase, the rewards are not always as clear. There can be a let-down once life slows down or takes a different course.
We have to move forward in life as self-sufficient adults without as much structure, guidance or even gratification for the work we put in day to day. This can be confusing and disappointing, and it can take some time for adjustment. When we dig deep and prove to ourselves that we are capable of caring for ourselves, we increase our self confidence in being able to handle what life hands us next. Doing this helps us also learn to appreciate the present because we come to understand that we may feel a loss for this time once it becomes the past.
It’s important to remember to be patient with ourselves when we are put in a new situation or phase of life. As a student or a young adult, we may think we have it all figured out. However, venturing into the “real world” pushes us beyond our comfort zone. It requires confidence and a greater sense of independence. We may not always feel completely prepared for the life ahead of us. By acknowledging each stage as it comes and goes, we can find peace with what’s been lost as well as what’s been gained.
Life is a continuum of changes. Punctuated milestones, like graduations, are a stepping stone to the next phase. Although graduations may be happy occasions, old faces, places and memories may trigger feelings that lead us to grieve the way our life was “before.” Embracing grief, rather than pushing it aside, helps us to better cope with change. This lets us carry the past into our future in a healthy way, free from regrets and seasoned with experience.