Five Ways Graduates Can Navigate Grief on the Big Day

We often envision graduation as a day of pride and balloons, and celebratory high-fives. It may be just that, and it can also be loaded with sadness and disappointment, especially for young people who are grieving the death of a family member who won’t be there. For them, it may feel like there is a giant hole that day, an ache that their person isn’t there to celebrate their win. While there is no “fixing” the feelings, there are ways to weave in some comfort by including their family member who died. Here are several of them we hope you’ll share with a grieving graduate(s) you know.

  1. Wear an item under your gown that reminds you of them. 

This could be an actual item the family member owned – a watch, a necklace, a tie, earrings – or it could be an item that reminds you of them, such as a pin with their name on it. Many of the young people we’ve spoken with like wearing a locket with their person’s picture inside it during milestone events.

  1. Add their name to your graduation cap.

You can write the family member’s name, birthday, nickname, whatever you like on a small piece of paper and tape it to the inside of your graduation cap. Some young  people write it on top of the cap in colored tape for all to see. 

Many graduates write the name of the person they’re grieving on a slip of paper, and tape it into their cap.


  1. Bring in their favorite food. 

Maybe you start the day by eating their favorite cereal or making muffins that you used to bake together. Perhaps you serve their favorite kind of ice cream at the post-graduation festivities. Maybe you toast the end of the day with their favorite cool summer drink.

  1. Talk to your person out loud or in writing.

While your family member isn’t here physically, you can still talk to them – out loud or in a letter. You might want to share with them what you’re proud of on graduation day, how you miss them on this big milestone, what you remember most about them, and/or whatever feels right for you. You can keep the letter or not; there are no rules.

  1. Have a good cry. 

Sometimes young people feel like they’re supposed to be smiling all day on graduation because it’s “meant to be” a happy day of accomplishment. It can be that and also be sad, and it’s more than okay to cry as feelings come up. It’s not only normal but healthy to make room for all the feelings. 

There is no right way to grieve, and there is no right way to celebrate big milestones without your person there. Give yourself compassion and be kind to yourself on this day. You deserve that as much as you deserve the hugs and high fives.

Michelle Cove is the Director of Communications at Experience Camps for grieving children. She is an award-winning documentary filmmaker, journalist, and national bestselling author whose projects have been featured on numerous national platforms including “The Today Show,” The Washington Post, The Boston Globe, and The New York Times.