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I Hate Silver Linings

Grieving Amidst a Cancelled Senior Year
Blog post written by
Mary McCall Leland

About two months ago, I received an email from my university president, announcing the cancellation of campus life and college classes as we all knew it.

Cancelled graduation, cancelled classes, cancelled appointments, cancelled trips, a skyrocketing infection rate — the list of things to grieve continuing into numbing oblivion. A sadness blankets our lives like the spring pollen, dusting everything.

No one is protected from the soul-crushing division that rips you from a beloved thing, a person or event you didn’t even know was vital. The first-generation student who fought tooth and nail to get to college, the Valedictorian of their high school bound for college in pre-school— everyone in education is touched by this. 

I am no expert in grief (I did take psychology 101 online in the fall!), but I have meditated on it all year. One of my closest friends and classmates passed away last fall suddenly. I struggled for months, then came back to school in January ready to start new. But five days into the spring semester, a freak accident shattered both bones in my right leg, restricting me to a knee scooter for the rest of the semester. By the time senior spring was effectively cancelled for everyone, my reaction was to simply surrender.

Grieving is not new to me, but global grieving is. Breaking my leg was a very personal experience, affecting the smallest concentric circle of grief: me. Others sympathized, but they couldn’t share the physical and emotional toll. When my friend Wynn passed away, it was a communal grief, affecting family and friends who were connected by a deep sadness. A cancelled spring semester — a cancelled everything, really — opens up something new: a global grief. 

It’s a first for me. My classmates and I were babbling toddlers when the World Trade Center fell in 2001. When the US job market and economy cratered in 2008, we were safely tucked away in our elementary school classrooms, practicing multiplication tables. But in 2020, only weeks away from launching our lives and careers, we look forward and see chaos. We’re clutching our diplomas in a world economy on the verge of collapse. And it’s terrifying. 

Before sitting down to write this, I sent a survey to about 100 college seniors I know, asking what it felt like to lose their final semester when others are losing so much more. Almost everyone noted graduation ceremonies, and 97% of students selected “socializing with friends” as a major loss.

Only one option was selected by all 100% of the respondents: “losing senior year traditions.” 

Grief usually separates you. When I broke my leg, I felt alone in my temporary distress. When Wynn passed away, my friends felt isolated from our classmates and professors, people who went about their normal lives while our world dissolved. But despite the way Covid-19 cancels shared moments and forces isolation, there is a stronger unity that glues us together.

“Grief is the price we pay for loving. When it’s particularly intense, we wonder if it’s worth it. But the question is, would we choose never to love so as never to grieve? The obvious answer is no.” 

That quote was read at Wynn’s vigil, and it’s been a salve as the losses multiply. Seniors have a lot to love: graduation photos with their friend group, physically walking across the stage to shake hands with their administration, saying goodbye to their favorite instructors, celebration parties with family— an endless list of things worth mourning. Even as we’re apart, we have the shared experience of love and sadness for all of those things. 

Four years of college didn’t feel long enough to begin with, and losing this final chapter sharpens our sense of the gift we all had before. 

I don’t really believe in silver linings. I hate them, in fact. They ask us to look beyond suffering to something hopeful, but that future is often ungraspable in our moments of loss. Silver linings demand that we focus on something other than the pain we’re living right now. They offer an easy way out of discomfort. 

As we trudge through this messy, sad, scary season of history, please don’t offer empty silver linings. Let’s address all of this head on, instead of looking above or around it, grasping at futures we can’t yet know. Acknowledge it is hard, that this is unprecedented, that we will come out of this experience stronger than ever. Check in on us, give us a space to grieve openly, create new ways to gain closure, but don’t push us to fabricate positives when it is time to mourn. 

I am glad for the time to look through old photos, embrace the bittersweetness of Zoom group catch-ups, and write thank you notes to friends and professors. I am glad for the little bit of time I still have as a  student at the University of North Carolina Chapel Hill, for the sheer luck of being a Tar Heel, without trying to rationalize my way to some positive outcomes from a college experience cut short.

I am asking for the chance to sit in this grief, because our first brush with grief will not be our last. 

I am endlessly thankful that we have something so beautiful to lose. Thankful for a university that has created a place for us to grow up, become adults, learn about ourselves and the world, and send us into our future with a diploma in hand (or in the mail, at least) and friends by our side. 

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