Dealing With the Disappointment of Canceled Plans and Missed Milestones
9 MINUTE READ
Such is the understatement of little children.
It feels like everything’s been canceled—relationships, milestones, celebrations, holidays, sporting events and family gatherings. Millions and millions of jobs have been lost, grandmas are unable to hold new grandbabies, and evidently gas is so cheap that they’ll pay us to fill our cars up at the pump. The COVID-19 virus has not only disrupted our routines, our health and our toilet paper supply chain, it has also yanked and frayed the threads of the very fabrics that hold our communities together.
The darkness hit home recently when a long-time friend of mine unexpectedly lost her father to non-coronavirus medical issues. They were forced to hold a tiny graveside service, and she couldn’t hug her elderly mom as they lowered her father into the ground.
Coronavirus is more than mean, my dearest Josephine. It’s destructive and a thief. It’s evil.
Grieving What We’ve Lost
The emails started coming seven or eight weeks ago. The mash-up of braces, poofy dresses and awkward photos (otherwise known as prom) has been canceled. There are no graduation ceremonies for spring 2020. Trips to see grandma are postponed. Weddings are pushed back. The 2020 Badminton Open Championships are canceled (I don’t know who, but someone, somewhere is sad about this . . . ).
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The loss of these cultural milestone markers is significant and real. Long journeys, like academic programs, religious experiences and weddings, need the emotional release of a final ceremony. And they’ve been taken away. These events—and the more recurring ones, like concerts and church services—form the foundation of our communities. No wonder it feels like things are being torn apart.
My family and I are grieving big things and small things, just like everyone else. My son turned 10 a few weeks ago. He spent his birthday party alone. Sure, we were all quarantined with him, and some extraordinary neighbors dropped unexpected gifts off at the front door. But I hurt watching him smile his way through what must’ve been a lonely birthday.
And to make things worse, I attempted to cut my son’s hair (I never knew I could miss a barber shop this much), and it looks like I shoved him headfirst into a lawn mower.
But the pain gets deeper.
A friend of mine had a beautiful new baby that her mother can’t hold for months. And another friend was just starting to head back out on the dating scene after a tragic divorce when she found herself locked up in her one-bedroom apartment. Her apartment now feels like a sheetrocked jail cell. The first whispers of loneliness had not fully quieted down before the quarantine began.
In an unfortunate twist of heartbreaking solidarity, I’ve heard from a number of you from all over the country and come to find out that I’m not alone. We’re all experiencing loss on an unimaginable scale.
How Should We Respond When We’re Disappointed?
So, how do we help ourselves and our loved ones deal with the loss of important events and milestones under the cloud of a global crisis? Here are six suggestions on how to grieve and support yourself and your loved ones during uncertainty.
1. Give yourself permission to grieve.
Don’t try to gloss over or numb these feelings. Name them and feel them. Be angry. Have a hard cry. If you’re saddened by the grief and loss of a loved one, write your lost family member letters, stay connected to your community, or get virtually plugged into a church or group. Connect and talk about your loss with your close friends. Facetime, grab a glass of wine, and let them know you’re sad. Hear their losses. Sit in your grief, but don’t bathe in it . . . and then make a plan for being courageous.
2. Give others permission to grieve.
I often say that your friends and community are your emergency fund for life. People need you right now—be an open heart and ear to your loved ones who are hurting. Their pain is real, even if you don’t feel it. Different people will grieve lost events and moments differently, and many of them will not personally impact you. Choose to be kind and gracious.
For instance, I’d rather set my eyebrows on fire than go to a friend’s graduation. I mean, seriously . . . Do you remember anything from your graduation? But they’re important to the graduate and their family. Ceremonies like graduations are a shared cultural experience, so honor them.
3. Don’t compare your grief to someone else’s.
It’s tempting to try and minimize our grief by comparing it to others who are “worse off” than we are. We end up getting stuck in an endless cycle: Yeah, we had to cancel my son’s birthday party, but one of my friends had to postpone her wedding. Yeah, I had to postpone my wedding, but at least I still have my job. Well, I lost my job, but at least no one in my family has died. And on and on it goes . . .
The problem with this approach is that we deny ourselves the permission to grieve. Plus, it might seem noble, but it’s not actually doing anyone else any good. Minimizing your sadness does not make someone suddenly feel better somewhere else in the world. The truth is, whether you lost out on something small, like a birthday party, or something big, like hugging your mom at your dad’s funeral, we’re all grieving (unless you’re the CEO of a toilet paper company).
Own your grief and don’t apologize for feeling sad.
4. Write down your thoughts and feelings in a journal.
I know this feels uber-cheesy and Dear-Diary-ish, but it’s backed by research, and it works. I don’t care how tough or cool you are—write down your feelings.
Seeing your feelings on paper allows them to stop spin-cycling in your head and become manageable. It takes away some of their power and gives you some much-needed space between your emotions and your ability to think.
5. Push your creativity into overdrive.
The Covid-19 crisis is giving us the opportunity to get creative and scrappy, and it allows us to reimagine what prom, holiday services, family time and special gatherings might look like. These are legacy-defining moments that will be talked about for decades. Grandkids will talk about how grandma and granddad got married on the computer, or how great-granddad threw a special prom for their mom at home.
Here are a few inspirational stories I’ve come across in my own life:
- My buddy in Texas is setting up a father-daughter dance in their living room in place of prom.
- Our church held our Good Friday candlelight service on Zoom, allowing the kids to be involved in ways they normally wouldn’t have been able to.
- I bought a cheap, leaky boat and have taken my kids on some sketchy, memory-making lake trips.
- A friend of mine attended a Zoom wedding with tons of guests and lots of laughter, and they said it was much, much cheaper!
This isn’t the time for being too cool. This is the time for being creative and making hundred-year memories. Truth is, I guarantee you that my prom date doesn’t remember my name or what I wore. But if my buddy Kevin decorates his living room and holds a three-song dance for his daughter who’s a senior in high school—a cheesy-mini-prom with dad and daughter, and they dance together—her grandkids will tell that story.
It’s important to note that some losses cannot be reimagined for history. Holding newborns, hugging loved ones at funerals, and losing family and friends causes dark, deep pain. Creativity cannot replace these stolen moments, but it can help you process grief and start the long, restorative journey of finding beauty and making meaning.
6. Choose optimism.
Viktor Frankl said, “Everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms—to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances.” We get to choose optimism. We get to choose to look for beauty in the rubble. We get to choose to be kind to our neighbors and be gracious with our coworkers. We must not allow pessimism, loss and grief to become our identity. These are unquestionably difficult times, but we get to decide how we respond to them.
And remember, whining doesn’t help your grieving. Posting mean things on the internet or inventing ugly motives about others doesn’t smother the burning embers of grief. It pours gasoline on them. Choosing to live in the darkness doesn’t honor your losses and will keep you from healing and moving forward. Get outside and into the light—literally—and feel some joy.
Joy and optimism are a choice, not a personality type. I want to say that again: Joy and optimism are a choice. Lean toward joy and healing, even in the midst of pain. But do it slowly, of course—don’t be fake or deny the difficulty . . . But remember that there’s always, always light at the end of the tunnel. And take the time to laugh alone, with your family, or with roommates. Put on some good stand-up comedy or a Seinfeld episode. Laughter is good for the soul.
Not All Good Things Are Canceled
While it feels like every meaningful event is being canceled, we have to remember that so many beautiful and important things are still happening in our daily lives. It’s important to transition from grieving a cancelation to seeing an opportunity to appreciate the things we still have.
Love and kindness have not been canceled.
Laughter has not been canceled.
Sunshine, rain and the woods have not been canceled.
Playing catch with my son or building the Frozen castle (for the 10th time) with my daughter has not been canceled.
Rocking to ’80s hair metal and dancing to ’90s country music has not been canceled.
Creativity and innovation have not been canceled.
The pandemic has changed all of our lives. Let’s grieve when necessary, support one another whenever we can, get creative and find alternative solutions, and lean toward joy, even in the dark.
We’re in this together.
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