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  • Writer's pictureCait Simmons

To the graduating class of 2020

Dear class of 2020,

Some people are honoring you by sharing their senior portraits on social media. I must admit I enjoy seeing how my friends looked back then, but I also imagine it doesn’t make most of you feel better about missing out on such a big life event.

I wish I had words of comfort for you (I sadly don’t). I wish I could tell you that this will be the one and only time that life will throw you such a disappointing curveball (it won’t be).

Here’s what I can tell you: this experience, while tragic on so many levels, will undoubtedly shape who you become. It is a defining historical moment in your young, hopefully long, successful lives—something you will be asked about years from now. And it’s already teaching some valuable life lessons, should you choose to learn them.

One potential lesson? Our stories don’t always go as planned.

When tragedy strikes during such a formative chapter, it changes our stories. And while we don’t have control over why or when tragedies strike, we can absolutely control how we respond to them.

Just like the couples out there who have had to postpone weddings or broadcast them virtually, or the mothers giving birth to babies without partner support, or the grandparents watching their grandchildren grow up through a screen, or the small business owners closing down stores and restaurants. This was not what any of us had planned and yet here we are, living through this unexpected chapter.

Which leads to a SECOND lesson: Grieve for what you have lost.

Maybe this is your first experience with grief, maybe it’s not. Either way, you must grieve for this particular loss, which is a complicated one. You must grieve for the loved ones taken too soon; the canceled special events; the missed time with friends and family; the swift departure of normalcy; for the life you had before that may never look quite the same again.

Grief, though universal, effects us all differently. Some folks can never get past the agony of it. Others give their pain a purpose. If you are trying to glean lessons and find blessings in this pandemic, you will strive for the latter...

Which leads to a THIRD possible lesson: Allow your grief to be a powerful tool for change.

Let your grief fuel your dreams. Let it change you for the better. Experiencing your own loss can help you empathize with the pain of others—and empathy is the great connector.

If I’m being honest, I don’t remember the speeches at my own high school graduation. I only remember the feeling that day—knowing I was closing one chapter before the next began. I remember feeling a sense of promise, like the world was mine for the taking.

The next chapter for me was college. Within a few days of leaving home for the first time, the world changed in an instant on a beautiful September morning when hijacked airplanes killed thousands of Americans and left us all feeling a kind of vulnerability and grief and unity we’d never felt before.

In the wake of 9/11, I remember thinking the world wasn’t really mine for the taking anymore. The world didn’t feel as welcoming or as safe. I felt robbed of a certain innocence. I didn’t know how living through something so tragic would change me, but it did, as it did everyone.

I see now that 9/11 taught me a lesson I wasn’t expecting to learn so young: life can be really hard and sad sometimes and it sure as hell isn’t fair. The people on those planes and in those buildings didn’t deserve to die then. The people in hospitals taking their last labored breaths don’t deserve to die now.

The stories of our lives aren’t one dimensional. Our chapters are filled with love AND grief, extraordinary AND ordinary days, joy AND pain, connection AND solitude. Here we all are now, in the midst of a global pandemic, with thousands dying every day. It’s not fair, it’s incredibly sad... AND there are countless stories shared daily about the goodness of people, the triumph of the human spirit, the love that continues to bring us closer together, even when we are apart.

The other day I heard grief author, David Kessler, interviewed and he said something that struck me: we find meaning after loss but the meaning isn’t in the tragic thing that happened, “the meaning is what we do after. The meaning is in us.”

Can we stop bad things from happening? No. In fact we should sort of expect them. They’re a part of life. But can we find meaning? Can we give our pain purpose? Can we look for the light in the darkness? Yes. Yes. Yes, we absolutely can.

So graduates, if you want some final unsolicited advice from this yogi/writer mom, it’s this: Go forth and find meaning. Go forth and seek purpose. Go forth and write what you can of your own stories, knowing full well that there will be hard chapters that change your life sometimes seemingly for the worse—but also maybe, just maybe, for the better.

The choice is yours... and your next chapter is about to begin.

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