Editor's note:  Is it safe to get back to the life you knew? As services come back, we’re asking our doctors and other providers to help answer those questions in a series called Navigating COVID: Back to life. You’ll find those stories, and many others, here. Got a question? Email healthyheadlines@novanthealth.org.

Imagine working for more than a decade to achieve your dream. After years of effort, you finally reach the finish line — bursting with excitement, ready to celebrate. But then, that long-imagined moment of  walking across the stage to claim your victory is snatched away. That’s the heartbreaking reality facing millions of high school seniors.

When the COVID-19 pandemic struck, schools began closing, stranding kids at home, away from friends and other sources of support. Then came the news: Graduation ceremonies were being canceled to maintain social distancing and flatten the curve.

For the Class of 2020 and their families, this was a crushing blow.

A rite of passage...denied

Jaren Doby
Jaren Doby

“These kids are missing out on the one, single solitary thing students have dreamed about since high schools were established: putting on that cap and gown, walking across that stage, and hearing their loved ones cheer when their names are called,” said Jaren Doby, a therapist at Novant Health Psychiatric Associates in Huntersville, North Carolina.

Doby, who counsels families and individuals through tough times, said it’s important to acknowledge that many seniors are going through real grief. We need to recognize that, he said, and not brush aside their pain or simply suggest it’s time to move on.

Therapist Jaren Doby at his high school graduation with Judge Henry E. Frye, the first African American chief justice for the North Carolina Supreme Court.

“There’s nothing like graduation for these kids. It’s a rite of passage,” Doby added. “But, for this graduating class and their families, it was swept away all too swiftly, and they’ll never get the opportunity to enjoy that experience.”

Tips for celebrating the Class of 2020

Most important: Keep the focus on the graduates and offer your support. The key? Be creative.

“That’s become my mantra these days,” Doby said. “Creativity is helping people cope with today’s challenges in some amazing ways.”

Of course, these things can’t make up for all the losses experienced by the Class of 2020. But finding creative ways to celebrate and support the students can help take the sting out of their disappointment.

Here are a few of Doby’s favorites:

Adopt-a-senior: Individuals and businesses are reaching out to adopt individual high school seniors to make them feel appreciated. They’re taking photos, publishing stories about the students, and helping them check off items on their graduation wish lists.

Senior parade: “I love seeing parades of cars with signs and decorations, driving through neighborhoods where high school seniors live, honking horns and playing music,” Doby said. “Maybe the kids can’t go to graduation, so communities are bringing the graduation to them.”

Celebrate together … apart. Help deliver awards and other school recognitions to seniors, while maintaining social distancing. Decorate your house (and theirs!) with congratulatory lawn signs and balloons. Or organize online groups where kids can give valedictory speeches — even if they weren’t valedictorians.

Organize a family brainstorming meeting. Whether by phone or online, family members can brainstorm ways to help graduates who feel like they were cheated out of an important event. Schedule a surprise online graduation party, or plan one for when the pandemic ends.

When emotions run high …

No two people are alike, and no two students will grieve the loss of their graduations in the same way, or at the same intensity. Doby recommends that parents practice compassion, and listen more than they talk.

“Also, because everyone’s needs are different, it’s important for parents to consider not what they would want or need in a similar situation, but what their kids need,” he said.

Now and then, when emotions run high, frustrated parents may be tempted to throw in the towel. But giving up on a teen during difficult times, letting them “tough it out” on their own to “build character,” often backfires, he said.  

“That kind of tough love might work for a few, but for many kids, it could turn this stressful situation into a traumatic event,” Doby said. Dont turn a blind eye to the need for professional help. Reach out before things get out of hand.”

Finally, for the Class of 2020, Doby offered the following advice:

“Remember: You are not alone in this frightening time. Countless other seniors are dealing with the same situation,” he said. “But human beings are adaptable, brave and resilient. We’ve made it through some terrible times. In the face of adversity, we always find our most noble selves and rise again.”

North Carolina residents who are in emotional distress — or would like guidance on helping someone they know who is struggling with depression, anxiety, alcohol or drug use — can call a free 24-hour helpline at 800-718-3550 to speak with a counselor. The service, provided by Novant Health, connects callers with a master's level therapist who can offer immediate guidance and help determine possible next steps, which could include a further assessment or connection to community resources for those in need.