The Grief Over Canceled Milestones Is Real. Here’s How to Cope.

And how to celebrate in ways that feel equally meaningful.

Dmytro Buianskyi / Shutterstock
Dmytro Buianskyi / Shutterstock

Spring is the season for major milestone celebrations. Everywhere families have been looking forward to weddings, graduations, bar and bat mitzvahs, quinceañeras, and proms. But now, in this highly unusual time of social distancing, those celebrations have been postponed or canceled for good. There’s an understandable sense of grief and disappointment that so many of us are feeling. (And for some of us, that grief is coupled with financial stress. If, say, you’ve had to postpone a major event like a wedding, rescheduling can mean losing a lot of money.)

Psychologically, all these milestones and rituals are important because they are intrinsically meaningful for human beings. They are communal experiences, many of them once-in-a-lifetime events, which, like weddings and funerals, have had a place in human culture for centuries. And while virtual parties and ceremonies are taking on new meaning, the loss of IRL events can feel devastating. “These celebrations are, on a very primitive level, a celebration that we are alive,” Jennfier Ramlo, Ph.D., a Los Angeles based  clinical psychologist, tells Thrive Global. “When something that we have been looking forward to just disappears, it can bring on feelings of great disappointment and sadness,” she says. 

If you’ve had to miss a milestone or anticipated event, here are five ways to ease the pain.

Grieve without guilt

“We tell ourselves things like, I feel sad, but I shouldn’t feel that; other people have it worse,” David Kessler, author of Finding Meaning: The Sixth Stage of Grief and founder of Grief.com told The Harvard Business Review. “Your work is to feel your sadness and fear and anger whether or not someone else is feeling something,” Kessler said. “Fighting it doesn’t help because your body is producing the feeling. If we allow the feelings to happen, they’ll happen in an orderly way, and it empowers us.” 

Celebrate twice

We all get stuck on timing, says Ramlo. “Our kid is supposed to graduate in May, for example,  and we want that to happen.” But why not take the opportunity to celebrate twice? Once now, at home with close family virtually present, and then together in person, just at a later date. “The fact that you can’t do it right now offers us a chance to reflect on the significance of the milestones, these rituals that punctuate our lives, and what they really mean to us,” Ramlo says. Rather than worrying that your impromptu celebration is a far cry from the one you had intended, focus on the fact that your family and friends can be together thanks to technology. Stay present in the beauty of the moment and practice gratitude. Even though you might be celebrating with a very small group, dress up, make the room look lovely, cook fantastic food. A little imagination and ingenuity (plus laughter) can make even a virtual celebration more special than you’d envisioned.

Get the practical stuff done

“It’s important to acknowledge our feelings, but allowing the ‘thinking mind’ to come forward and make the necessary changes can also relieve some of our stress,” Ramlo says. Once you’ve made those difficult phone calls and cancelled bookings, you may well feel a sense of relief and completion.

Talk about your feelings

To fight against the helpless feeling that something has been taken away from us,helps us to remember that we are not alone. “We are all losing something during this time. Talk with your friends about it and figure out how to acknowledge your own and each other’s successes and resilience,” advises Ramlo. 

Practice acceptance  

Acceptance is the final stage of grief, after anger and sadness. It’s the feeling of “‘This is happening; I have to figure out how to proceed’,” Kessler told HBR. “Acceptance, as you might imagine, is where the power lies. We find control in acceptance,” he said. Anytime you become despondent about the milestone that isn’t happening the way you had planned and dreamed, remember what’s important is the essence and spirit of the day. And that is worth celebrating.  

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