The 5 Stages of Graduation Grief

Photo Courtesy of Brooke Donovan

Ayanna Totten 

Staff Writer 

Somewhere between adolescence and adulthood, next becomes the only destination that matters. We don’t pause to appreciate the small, not-so-small moments that blur into monotony. Instead, we wish we could fast forward, fast forward to the next day, month or milestone.  

For college seniors around the nation, our “next” was graduation. However, like many universities, ESU postponed May commencement ceremonies due to the Coronavirus (COVID-19) outbreak.  

Facing the reality of a worsening pandemic and losing the finish line to a four-year journey can leave students feeling lost.  

I compared my rollercoaster of thoughts and emotions to the five stages of grief: denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance.  

Of course, there are people who have lost loved ones to COVID-19 and are legitimately grieving. My comparison isn’t meant to downplay their suffering but rather shed light on the fact that we’re all mourning something. 

We’re mourning those small, not-so-small moments we took for granted. We’re mourning every “next” that gave us purpose or a slither of light to look forward to. 


When ESU extended spring break, I understood the severity of COVID-19, but I couldn’t accept the possibility of students not returning to campus. I had just pre-ordered my cap and gown, family members were booking flights and I was determined to finish the semester strongly. 

I imagined the superficial, worst-case scenario: a Facetime graduation with a poor connection when my name was announced.  

There was no way I wouldn’t walk across the stage on May 9. It was preordained. I already felt myself in a black folding chair in Koehler Fieldhouse, tapping the toe of my four-inch heels as I waited for the end of the alphabet. 


On March 16, President Welsh announced: “ESU will transition all classes to online instruction for the remainder of the semester.”  

After following the decisions of other colleges in and outside the PASSHE system, I anticipated the email. Still, it felt surreal.  

How many times did I count down the minutes until class was over? Would I have the chance to give my favorite professors a proper goodbye? Could I remember the last time my friends and I sat in a circle of old newspapers and hard laughs? 

I wanted the semester to fly by, and now my bedroom was my new classroom — no Union or club office beyond the doors.  

I felt both robbed and regretful. I realized your senior year should be cherished. 

More importantly, I was angry about our country’s fate.  

Why weren’t our leaders prepared? Why didn’t we heed warnings? What could’ve been done to prevent the spread of COVID-19 and subsequent fatalities?  

Why is America’s president a narcissist with the vocabulary of a fourth-grader? Why does his pandemic response sound more like a global competition than an effort to save human lives?

I couldn’t ask these questions without reflecting inward. Was I selfish for hoping my graduation wouldn’t be canceled? Didn’t other people already have worse circumstances to face? 

What were my privileges? I had a home, I was able to work remotely, I had the resources for online classes, my loved ones and I were healthy and I had the opportunity to complete my bachelor’s degree. 

I felt conflicted. I knew graduation would be canceled in the coming days, and my eventual disappointment was real, but COVID-19 reminded everyone that life is precious regardless of how it may change. 


As White House briefings and COVID-19 cases and deaths surged, it was evident that our world was on pause.  

Every person was at risk of becoming infected, and we had a responsibility to practice social distancing. It wouldn’t be wise for anyone to attend graduation even if it wasn’t cancelled. I decided I’d be satisfied with an alternative: walk in the winter ceremony. 

I searched for the silver linings and found hope, hope that humanity would be healed by the end of the year. Plus, who could turn down a celebration with Christmas magic? 


On March 26, President Welsh made the official announcement.  

“So it is with a heavy heart that I must tell you we are opting to cancel spring’s commencement ceremonies,” she wrote. “Instead, we would like to invite all of you to join fellow Warriors who will graduate in December 2020.” 

It was set in stone. My family could cancel their flights, and my four-inch heels and cap and gown were on hold. I wouldn’t walk across the stage on May 9. 

Yes, I got the alternative I, and maybe many of you, wanted, but part of me was still empty. 

I worked so hard to maintain nearly a 4.0 GPA and pay for half of my degree out-of-pocket. I prayed for May 9th, and many times, it was the only image that kept me going. 

My motivation waned. COVID-19 had changed so much, but we all had responsibilities to uphold. Juggling senioritis, 18 credits and general anxiety would make the semester much more difficult.  


It’s a daily effort, but I’ve accepted two things.  

First, it’s okay to be disappointed. Denying and fighting your feelings will only cause your mental health to deteriorate. Graduation is a sacred moment for you to accept your degree among family and friends. 

Second, find a way to celebrate yourself on May 9 anyways. You completed 120 college credits. 

We often look to ceremonies and accolades to confirm our accomplishments, but the celebration starts within. 

Eventually, we all realize that college tests your perseverance, forcing you to grow and learn about yourself in more ways than one. 

How many internships did you finish? How many jobs did you rush to before, after and between classes? 

How many deadlines did you meet? How many tests, quizzes and final exams did you pass? How much stress did you overcome, and how many tears did you shed over open books and keyboards? 

The answers to those questions should be your very first round of applause. 

As you finish out the semester, don’t be afraid to ask for help. Use campus resources, communicate with your professors and lean on friends and family for support.  

Lastly, please don’t convince yourself “you’ve already started your life,” and there’s no reason to walk in the December ceremony. 

Life started the moment you were born, and every day thereafter is your destiny to design.  

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