Thrive by IU Health

June 09, 2020

How to Cope if COVID-19 Has Canceled a Major Life Event

How to Cope if COVID-19 Has Canceled a Major Life Event

A high school graduation with all its pomp and circumstance. A wedding two years in the works. A retirement party fitting for your 40-year career.

Once-in-a-lifetime – and missed. Postponed – indefinitely. On Zoom – ugh.

From dream travel plans to a funeral you couldn’t attend, from a baby shower to celebrate your first child to your kids’ long-hoped-for summer vacation activity, the COVID-19 crisis continues to wipe out many events we cherish the most.

But whether that date has come and gone or is looming in its emptiness on your calendar, those eraser marks or forgot-to-delete phone reminders may be leaving you feeling empty.

Whether it is that wedding date come and gone and all the wedding planning and stressing for naught or an event no longer practical – or enjoyable – due to social distancing restrictions, what do we do now about those empty feelings? How do we process those events gone by?

There’s a healthy way to wrestle through these major missed life events due to COVID-19. Lindsay Potts and Trisha Palencer, licensed clinical social workers and therapists for IU Health Behavioral Health, provided several suggestions if you’ve missed a significant life event.

Create Space for Grieving Canceled Event

The first step if you are facing an event that has been canceled or altered drastically by this crisis is to create space for grief.

Frame these moments through the lens of the grieving process. In fact, not doing so would be the strange thing to do, said Potts, manager of outpatient behavioral health services in Bloomington.

“To not feel disappointment, to not feel sadness based off missed connections, based off of trips that were canceled, not being able to connect with certain people in your lives, that would be an odd emotional response,” Potts said.

For example, take a high school senior ready to walk across the stage or a college graduate. That person should be allowed the space for that deep disappointment for the sadness in missing the event and events surrounding graduation.

“There’s no way to change this right now, there’s no way to bring back that experience,” Potts said. “Allow for that disappointment, sadness and grief.”

During COVID-19 we’ve been quick to adapt to new ideas – from birthday car parades to Zoom weddings – and while those have their place (we’ll get back to those), we shouldn’t be too quick to jump into “fix it” mode with quick alternatives, Potts warned.

“We shouldn’t have that knee-jerk reaction ‘Oh it’s fine’ or ‘Oh it’s going to be fine because we’re going to do it virtually, we’ll do this car drive-by thing and everyone will honk!’ Understand that there’s no way to replicate these events,” Potts said.

Normalize the Grief Process (for You and Others)

If you are helping someone wrestle through the pains of a missed event, sometimes finding the right words are difficult.

Palencer, the director of the Addiction Treatment & Recovery Center at IU Health West Hospital, offered suggestions for what not to say – and what to say instead.

Her main advice: Be empathetic, not just sympathetic. Put yourselves in their shoes.

Avoid the “At least…” comments: “At least you graduated…”, “At least you were able to get married…”, “At least you are young and healthy…”

“Nothing sympathetic has ever started with the phrase ‘At least…,’” Palencer said. “Moving away from sympathetic language to empathetic language provides support.”

Instead, she suggested several ways you can help someone who is struggling with that missed event. Maybe start with these:

  • “It must be really hard to lose that.”
  • “What do you miss the most about being able to have that event?”
  • “What were you looking forward to the most?”

In those conversations, Palencer said you will help your friend or loved one normalize the grief process to better work through the emotions they’ve been feeling.

Consider Alternative Celebrations for Your Wedding, Graduation or Other Major Event

Whether you’ve seen John Krasinski’s Some Good News broadcasts, the latest social media viral event celebration or been part of one yourself, you know there’s been a collective effort in these times to find alternative ways to celebrate weddings, birthday parties, graduations, retirements, and other occasions.

Once you’ve begun to normalize the grief process over the missed event, creating an alternate solution can be a healthy way to enjoy what’s been canceled.

If you’re not directly affected (say, you are helping your kids work through disappointment in a missed event), you may need to have conversations to help reset expectations first. Or maybe just have those conversations with yourself.

“How do we re-tool our expectations, how do we find new things and how do we find new meaning in the things we’ve never had before?” Potts said.

If you or your family are open to new ideas, then go for it.

“You’re not going to have the same type of feel that you were anticipating, but I do think that if someone is open and willing, then you can find new ways to still celebrate,” Palencer said.

And while there won’t ever be a redo of a high school graduation or a 21st birthday party, and that baby will be born baby shower or not, this time can create unique opportunities even while grieving the event gone by.

“It’s a time where we can use this to increase connection and almost make things more memorable in a different way,” Potts said. “I really encourage people to get creative in that space and at the same time allow people that space to be disappointed with things that have changed.”

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