Dear Parent of a COVID-19 Senior
Last October when I wrote an article to parents of seniors, I had no idea March 13 would be my son’s last day of high school, that he would finish the year alone, online, in my den, wearing pajama pants.
Most kids found out weeks ago that their senior year would be cut abruptly short. Of all the things that they were hoping to experience at the end of this year, the only thing that remains is the schoolwork itself, and that is limited to the drudgery of remote classes and assignments.
Now, in mid-May, each passing day brings the fresh grief of a celebration cancelled:
The senior edition of the school newspaper would have gone out today.
My final recital was supposed to be tonight.
Wonder if I would’ve won an award?
How we will ever sign yearbooks?
This was gonna be our year in baseball.
Like the prom dress in the closet, tags still attached, these kids are all dressed up and have no place to go.
To make matters worse, no one can tell them what the next months will look like. All the nerves associated with making this major transition are additionally frayed by uncertainty. The first adult plans these seniors made for themselves are now predicated by if: if colleges open in the fall, if I still have enough money in my college account, if my parents don’t lose their jobs, if it’s safe to live in the dorm…
We parents of COVID-19 seniors would like to be able to tell them how this is all going to work out, but the fact is we don’t know. We’d like to be able to tell them we understand how they feel, but we don’t, exactly; we know about disappointment, but the last thing our kids need to hear right now is mom or dad’s sob stories.
I asked my senior how I could help him. After much protesting that there’s nothing I could do or say, he did offer this: “Just give me space. Let me be disappointed. If you have to say something, say, ‘This sucks; I’m sorry it happened; if you want to hang out or do something fun, I’m here.’ ”
I think my kid is onto something. He realizes he needs to feel the loss and grieve it. When our kids are sad or angry, parents often rush in to fix it, to give them something or do something to cheer them up. Instead, let’s accept we can’t make this up to them. What they have lost is a celebration unique to this moment in time. The end of senior year is irreplaceable. Actually, it’s a bit selfish for me to try to fix my child’s unhappiness right now, just because I can’t stand to see him down. What’s worse, doing so teaches him that emotions like sadness, anger, and grief need to be numbed or avoided or fixed rather than felt. I am teaching him to dodge these negative feelings, as if he is too fragile to withstand suffering.
Instead, show your senior how to lament. Let them cry and fume. Show them (gently, gently) how Scripture- especially the Psalms- invites them to give voice to their hurt and disappointment in prayer.
One of the worst things we can do to a person who is grieving is to meet their pain with all the reasons they ought to be grateful, all the reasons that they shouldn’t feel the way they feel. God doesn’t do that. He wants us to bring our bruised hearts directly to Him.
Teenagers often hesitate to lament because it sounds like complaining, and it seems like a bad idea to get whiny with God. Explain to your senior that complaining is effectively talking bad about God behind His back (so to speak), and only serves to make us bitter. Paradoxically, lament is confrontational and leads to trust and love. This is deliberate- God’s invitation to prayers of lament is an invitation to a closer friendship with Him. He knows how we feel anyway, so by all means we can talk to Him honestly, without trying to sound pious and nice. Counselor Julie Sparkman often says that the Psalms of lament begin with anguish, “GOD WHAT ARE YOU DOING????” through which the Holy Spirit moves us into curiosity, “God, what are you doing?”
Curious trust serves us well as we wait on the Lord alongside our seniors. Accustomed to making plans and anticipating what lies ahead, we can’t even mark the freshman move-in date on our calendars because we don’t know if that will happen. But contrary to what your child may have learned from Hamlet in senior English, we are not subject to “the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune,” but beloved children of the living God who stewards our futures carefully. This pandemic threw us for a loop, but it did not take God by surprise. We’re in this together (as the slogans go) and there’s solidarity and genuine comfort for parents and children who share their uncertainty and exhort one another to trust. Talk about your concerns and fears for the future with your senior. Ask them to pray for you and ask (don’t assume) how they would like you to pray for them. Your senior will appreciate being treated as an adult brother or sister in Christ.
Dive into your Bibles together. Trials have a way of shining new light on familiar verses. For example, avoid the temptation to quote Romans 8:28 without talking about what it does – and does not – mean. I love how Tim Keller explains this verse, which reads: “And we know that for those who love God, all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose.” Notice, Keller says, that the verse does NOT say that all things are good, or that God will make the bad things good. This pandemic, and the suffering and loss that surrounds it, is not in itself good. It’s bad. It’s really, really bad. But God can and will use this bad thing, along with all the other good and bad things, to work together for good for our children who belong to him.
A similar promise occurs in the little book of Joel. God promises the famine-stricken nation of Israel, “I will restore to you the years the locust has eaten” (Joel 2:25). What seems like pointless, irretrievable loss to us is raw material for creative grace in the hands of our loving Father. We demonstrate that curious trust when we wait in hope to see how God will accomplish that for our seniors. He won’t rewind the time, but He will make the present and the future uniquely beautiful, even in light of what’s been lost.
All of Scripture reminds us that God resurrects what was dead and redeems what was lost. I’ve had a glimpse of this in my own home. Considering all the suffering that is going on in the world right now, my senior son has felt a little ashamed to be down about missing graduation festivities. While there’s no shame in the disappointment, his awareness is itself redemptive. God is using this situation (among other things) to move my son outward from the self-centeredness of childhood to a mature concern for the trials of others. If God can redeem the most senseless act in human history, the unjust execution of His sinless Son on the cross, He can redeem anything.
Finally, find ways to commemorate your senior’s achievement in a way that fits your child and your family. God hard-wired us for celebration. You might even say we are born to party. At the marriage feast of the Lamb, we will feast and dance and revel with joy inexpressible: “No eye has seen, no ear has heard, and no mind has imagined what God has prepared for those who love him” (1 Corinthians 2:9).
Now THAT will be a celebration worth waiting for.
Check out the youth ministry side of the blog for the perspective of a youth leader ministering to graduating seniors.
Please see also: Helping Our Kids Through Grief and Disappointment Caused by COVID-19.