Apr 16, 2018


It’s Okay to Cry: Helping Seniors Leave Well

Erica Young Reitz says it’s okay for your seniors — and you — to cry when your seniors leave. Help them leave (and grieve) well!

I hate endings. Whether a small ending (like the end of the weekend) or a significant one (like the end of an academic year), I tend to get irritable just before the transition. I want to avoid endings, and I have students who are kindred spirits with me in this; they’d be content if college never came to a close. On the other hand, I have students who are so eager to be on to the next thing, they bypass the ending of college altogether. They go through the motions their last weeks on campus, but in their heads, they’ve already moved on, started that job, married their fiancé, and so on.

The finality of endings and the cultural pressure to keep moving forward make it difficult to approach endings in a healthy way. Endings are hard. Awkward. Inefficient. If we truly allow our inner feelings to rise up in these times, we may appear weak. We may cry. Embracing an ending often requires emotional energy and relational investment we don’t want to give. Where’s the time and space for that when life’s moving at Mach speed? For all of these reasons, we may be tempted to avoid endings. Or rush on to the next thing. We must offer students a third way: ending well.

Name the Loss

There are many ways to help students finish strong, but there’s one part of ending well that’s easily overlooked: helping students grieve. Last week I met with Carissa, a senior who is adding the finishing touches to her honors thesis. She can’t wait to turn it in and spend the coming weeks celebrating. She’s looking forward to having the project behind her, enjoying more free time with friends and handing over her leadership roles.  As she shared all of the ways she wants to celebrate, I encouraged her to do just that, but I also mentioned that she may need to grieve too. I wanted her to know that if she doesn’t feel celebratory every day that follows her project deadline, it’s normal. Endings involve both celebration and sadness.

As seniors turn in projects, end leadership roles or transition off teams, they may feel an emptiness. They may expect the excitement that comes with completing something; however, it’s possible for them to feel the opposite: sad and purposeless. We need to celebrate our students well, and we need to prepare them for the fallowness that often follows graduation.

Ending well means helping students name the loss, especially for those who may not be aware or know how to. For example, my co-worker Kelly, who works with athletes at a large public university, gives her students mugs each year with this inscription: NARP. It stands for Non-Athlete Regular Person. Kelly wants to help students name the loss of their role as full-time athletes and embrace their status as “regular people.” Students may need to grieve the loss of

  • Purpose/role/identity
  • Relationships
  • Structure/ways of organizing their time
  • Access/privileges (that come with their student status)
  • Financial safety net (when loans payments start)
  • Place

Students may also need to grieve unmet expectations for their next step, especially if they haven’t received a job offer or they need to move back home against their wishes. My co-worker, Michael, Assistant Director of Cross-Cultural Ministry, talks about the importance of helping students who have “bought the suit, but can’t find the job,” particularly those who come from backgrounds where there is no safety net. According to Michael, the best things we can offer are “lament and biblical hope.”

Grieve with Hope

Whether it’s grieving the sadness of saying goodbye to roommates or lamenting the deeper injustices that make it more difficult for students from certain backgrounds to launch their lives after college, we must offer hope. We can remind students of the biblical hope that’s found in knowing the person of Christ and the end of the Story: ultimately, every tear will be wiped from our eyes (Rev 21:4). Grieving with hope (1 Thes 4:13) doesn’t mean we downplay the loss. We can help students experience the sadness while also pointing to a greater reality: the new beginning will come.

Even for students who don’t know Jesus, we can still offer a message of newness. When my friend Gabrielle experienced one of the deepest losses of her life (the end of an eight year romantic relationship she thought would lead to marriage), she let herself grieve the darkness of loss, but she was also determined to move beyond it. Though the pain might take a long time to heal from, she knows her story is not over. Gabrielle decided to mark this reality with a permanent reminder: a tattoo on her inner forearm of ampersand (&). For her, it means her story continues. There’s more. & more. This is one of the best messages we can give our graduating seniors: the chapter of college is coming to a close, and the story continues! (I love senior gifts that involve ampersands. ☺)

Mourn with Those Who Mourn

As they approach graduation and enter life after college, students need to know they are not alone. We can assure them of this by coming alongside them (Romans 12:15), and checking on them long after they’ve graduated. We can also connect them to other alumni who can normalize the challenge of the transition. Recently I visited with a former student, Faye, who has had many ups and downs since graduation. As she reflects on life after college, one of the most significant parts of her journey has been learning to grieve. Like most students, Faye left college eager to make a difference in the world (and she is!), but in her enthusiasm, she forgot half of the gospel. In her words, Faye says,

“I walked away from college with the idea that God had redeemed all things…, but I was ignoring the side of the suffering…the cross part of the gospel.” Faye needed to be reminded that life is full of both consolation and desolation, celebration and sadness.

We experience this reality every day, and our seniors will likely experience it as college comes to an end. If we want to prepare students to leave well, the most important thing we can do is offer is the full gospel story (creation, fall, redemption and restoration), and invite students to see the way this narrative plays out in their major, relationships, and everyday life. We must show them by entering into the full gospel ourselves (It’s okay for us to grieve the ending too.) Our willingness to mourn with students at the close of college teaches them how to grieve – a practice that is crucial for faithful living in a Kingdom that is now but not yet.

How do you normalize the grief that comes with endings, make room for it, and help students process it?

about the author

Erica Young Reitz

After 14 years of college ministry experience working for the CCO, Erica is now teaching and consulting. Her passion for equipping graduating seniors to prepare for life after college continues. Erica is available to speak and consult – she loves connecting with students and 20-somethings as well as with practitioners who work with them. Currently, she serves as an adjunct faculty for Geneva College’s Master’s in Higher Education Program. She is the author of After College: Navigating Transitions, Relationship and Faith (InterVarsity Press). www.aftercollegetransition.com