Graduation And Grief

Remembering A Loved One During A Milestone

Milestones can be painful to face without those we love by our side, especially when their loss is fresh and our grief at its sharpest. Graduation is one of those moments that can hit us the hardest, as we are leaving one stage of our lives and entering a new one. At that moment, every graduating student wants to step forward with their loved ones with them.

When the deceased presence is missing, then it can be difficult to find joy or the desire to celebrate the future. Learning that there is no right or wrong way to grieve and that we can find ways to remember the dead even as we turn the page toward the future, is crucial to becoming the person they would be proud of knowing.

Why Are Graduations Meaningful?

Graduation is a big deal. It doesn't matter whether someone is graduating from kindergarten or getting their Ph.D. It's always an accomplishment to be celebrated! Graduation is also referred to as commencement. Rather than marking the end of one stage in a student's life, the term suggests that graduation signifies the beginning of the next.

THIS IS AN ACHIEVEMENT TO CELEBRATE

Graduation day is your big moment. You did it. You made it through the hard work, stress, and demanding schedule to get to this day. You succeeded even when the odds may have been against you and, perhaps most tellingly, when you suffered a great personal loss.

It does not matter how long it may have taken you or any setbacks along the way. You deserve this moment to pat yourself on the back and acknowledge that you made it through!

IT'S A LANDMARK IN YOUR LIFE

Graduation is a key part of your life. It’s a momentum occasion in the grand timeline of your life. It denotes an achievement that you’ve completed your study and are ready to move forward. It is a symbol of change for you.

You’ll remember this time for the rest of your life, so take a moment to appreciate the work and the moment. You can look at graduation as a steppingstone to the future. This marks the moment you begin the rest of your life, stepping out of being a student to take those next leaps into adulthood. It might be a little scary – but it’s also exciting.

IT'S THE START OF A NEW CHAPTER

Whether you're working your way up the corporate ladder, starting your own venture, or simply learning the family trade, this is the first step toward your new profession. (Or even towards the next level of academic success). Graduation brings you new opportunities and opens doors to the life you want and the world you want to explore.

IT'S A CHANCE TO CELEBRATE YOUR ACHIEVEMENT

While this is absolutely a time for you to feel proud of yourself, it’s also the moment for those around you to express their joy and pride for you. Your family and friends share their well-wishes and love for your accomplishments. They may even be celebrating their part in your accomplishment if they gave you support (financial, emotional, or otherwise) or sacrificed with you to make it to this point.

Graduation is a chance to celebrate with the people who have been on this journey with you, too. Other students - your friends and your classmates - will be proud and eager to celebrate your shared accomplishments. Your graduation celebration is a great time to spend time with your friends without worrying about deadlines or GPAs. It’s an opportunity to spend time with these people around you before your lives may take you in different directions.

What could be better than celebrating your future with the people who have made your past more meaningful?

How Does Grief Affect Someone Who Is Grieving At A Time Like This?

Grief strikes everyone differently. There is no singular correct way to experience grief or work through our emotions regarding the loss of a parent, friend, or partner. Healing after a loss takes time. It’s not an easy endeavor, either. However, there are certain universals that we may all experience as we move through the stages of grief even if we do so in different ways.

The most common emotion you might feel in these moments is, of course, sadness. You miss the person and wish they were still here. It might sound trite, but this is an important emotion to feel.

You want your loved one to see you walk across that stage. You want them to be there to congratulate you and share in your joy. It hurts to do this without them. Whether it’s a parent, grandparent, partner, or friend, their presence should have been a huge part of your life and – more pressingly – your graduation.

With that, you may feel a certain amount of regret. It’s time that you will never have with the person, despite how much you wish to experience your transition from one stage of life into the next.

You may also feel anger as you approach the day. Your loved one should be there with you. Without them, you’re likely to feel cheated out of that time. Feeling any of these emotions as you near your graduation day is normal. They are also more common than we may be led to believe. You should let yourself feel these emotions even as you realize there are ways to keep your loved one’s memory with you throughout this momentous occasion.

How Do I Get Through The Graduation Ceremony When I'm Grieving?

Any new milestone after the death of a loved one can be painful. While our grief stays with us for a long time, that doesn't mean we can't find ways to appreciate these moments while they happen. When your grief is still fresh, it can be difficult to focus on anything beyond that loss. With that in mind, here are a few considerations to help you through your grief to make it through your graduation day.

REMEMBERING THEIR LOVE FOR YOU

This is the biggest thing to remember. Whatever loss you’ve faced, know that they loved you as much as you love them. Focus on that feeling when you feel overwhelmed or distressed. They would proud of you for finishing this huge step and even prouder that you are moving forward despite your loss. Your loved one would not want you to miss out on this moment – or the love and support of those who are there to celebrate with you.

KNOW THAT THEIR MEMORY MEANS THEY ARE STILL WITH YOU

The people we love never really leave us, even after they die. They stay with us in our thoughts, our hearts, and our memories of how they made us feel when they were with us. Hold onto these feelings as you navigate this difficult time.

RECOGNIZE THIS STEP IN YOUR GRIEF PROCESS

When you move through the stages of grief, you likely won’t do so in a linear fashion. However, moving forward and acknowledging this milestone – even if you choose not to partake in a huge celebration – is a huge step for you.

HONOR THEM ON YOUR DAY

If you view your day as simply another milestone, you miss out on the chance to make this about more than just yourself. You can turn it into a way to acknowledge their love and support of you as well as celebrate your own achievements. See below for ideas on how to incorporate your loved ones into the celebration despite their physical absence.

What Can I Do To Celebrate My Graduation With The Memory Of My Deceased Loved One In Mind?

After you’ve lost someone, one of the best things you can do is celebrate your major life milestones with their memory. While we have compiled a list of ways to do that, it’s by no means the only way for you to make your day more meaningful with your loved one’s memory.

INCORPORATE THEIR PHOTO INTO YOUR GRADUATION GEAR

One of the easiest ways to memorialize your loved one during the graduation ceremony is to bring a photo of the person with you on your big day. For this, it doesn’t necessarily matter what kind of graduation it is – high school, college, business, or trade school, etc – to be effective and comforting.

The most common way to do this is to pin a photo of the deceased somewhere on your graduation regalia close to your heart. Keep a photograph of a loved one close to your heart, whether it's placed in a chest pocket or physically attached to your clothing. If you are the type of person to wear jewelry, you can even put the photo into a small locket to wear as a necklace or charm bracelet.

WRITE OR DRAW THEIR NAME ON YOUR GRADUATION CAP

It’s an incredibly common practice to decorate your graduation cap. While some people choose to do silly or clever things with theirs, it’s just as popular to make them meaningful in some way. Many people frame their caps with their diplomas after graduation. Others keep them on display elsewhere. You can easily dedicate some small piece of your decoration to your loved one.

Some ideas for this include:

  • You can put their name on it somewhere.
  • You could also add their birthday or date of death.
  • You can add a quote that held meaning to the person. This can be something they said often, a line of dialogue or song they loved, or even a short bit of text.
  • You can use a color or symbol you associate with the deceased most frequently. This can be their favorite color (discussed more below), a symbol associated with their job or hobby, or an embellishment they would have loved.

There are many ways to decorate your cap. You can use sparkly paper, glitter, stickers, stencils and paints, photos, and so much more! Don’t hesitate to play with some ideas to find what works best for you. Make sure you secure your decorations well! Hot glue is always a great option for that. We do recommend checking with any restrictions your school or organization has in place for the ceremony before you choose a final design.

What better way to keep them with you at this moment than having them represented on the most visible part of your graduation garb?

HAVE A KEEPSAKE MADE IN THEIR HONOR

One of the ways you can hold onto the memory of a deceased loved one and keep them close to you on your graduation day may be easier than you think – through the creation of a personalized, beautiful piece of jewelry.

Cremation Jewelry

As cremation becomes more popular in the western world, so too do keepsakes created from the cremation ashes of a loved one. Cremation jewelry – typically pendants, rings, and bracelets – can be an excellent way to keep the memory of your loved one close by all the time. These cremation keepsakes can be filled with a small amount of cremains and sealed to keep them contained.

For a full guide to the types of cremation jewelry available, we have created The Ultimate Guide To Buying Cremation Jewelry.


Photo Engraved Jewelry

Photo-engraved jewelry comes in many forms, though the most popular items are pendants – like this Gem Heart Pendant – or charm bracelets – like a Sophisticated Round Bracelet – that can feature custom engraving as well as featuring a photo of your choice. Even if you don’t wear jewelry, there are many other ways to memorialize your loved one in a way you can take with you on your big day.


Fingerprint Jewelry

One of the most unique things about a person is their fingerprint. Fingerprint jewelry is, by nature, one-of-a-kind. You can take this distinctive facet of your loved one and turn it into a wearable piece of art you can keep close at all times. All you need to create your own is the fingerprint of your parent (which is generally included in funeral home services) and a little imagination to create your own.


Ashes Into Jewelry

One popular way to create a memorial keepsake of a loved one is to have a small amount of their ashes transformed into jewelry. These one-of-a-kind pendants are created by mixing ashes from the deceased with a colorful resin of your choice to create a distinctly personal piece of wearable art. The effect this creates is a gorgeous swirl effect that retains a glossy, gem-like appearance that is both beautiful and highly personal.

These pendants come in multiple sizes and shapes. Many even offer multi-color options for the resin. They can be completely customized to your specifications, including color and the addition of custom engraving on the back.

What’s more, these keepsakes do not immediately appear to be memorial jewelry, allowing you a more subtle option to honor your loved one. One example would be this Gold Campfire Heart pendant.

WEAR A PIECE OF JEWELRY - OR ANOTHER ITEM - FROM THE DECEASED DURING THE CEREMONY

Jewelry often holds significance to us, especially when it used to belong to someone we love. Family heirlooms are passed down this way for a reason, after all. Perhaps you have a ring, necklace, or earrings from that person that you’d like to wear for the day. 

This doesn’t necessarily have to be strictly for women, either. Jewelry doesn’t need to be gendered, especially when it is something that resonated with you while the person was alive. Rings, bracelets, and even necklaces can be worn discreetly if you feel that necessary.

However, it’s become more common for people of all genders to wear jewelry. For anyone wearing a dress shirt, you may find solace in your loved one’s cufflinks or even a tip-clip they wore frequently.

For non-jewelry items, you can consider an item of clothing they gave you. The gift will be doubly meaningful as it is something you can have as comfort if you begin to feel sad or upset during the ceremony. If you feel comfortable with it, you can also consider an item of clothing that belonged to your loved one as well. While you may not find shirts or dresses suitable, you may look at accessories like ties, belts, wallets, or even a scarf they wore often.

We often talk about keeping someone’s memory alive but don’t always fully discuss how we can do it. For you, it may be taking something that belonged to them and incorporating it into your attire for the day. What better way to take them with you on a day you know they would love to see?

ADD A BLACK GRADUATION CORD TO YOUR ATTIRE

Graduation cords, sometimes called honor cords, are braided rope-like strands that college graduates wear around their necks like a shawl on top of their robes. A single black cord added to your graduation robes may be a small, unobtrusive way to honor your loved one while providing a tangible way to express your grief during your ceremony. If you’d like, you can even wear it beneath your robes as a personal sign of your own grief.

While black honor cords can mean someone is graduating with a degree in business or accounting, it is not used as frequently as those denoting academic honors or membership in a group or society. These are not official, however. You will not be violating any code or rules by wearing one for your own purpose.

SERVE THEIR FAVORITE FOOD AT YOUR CELEBRATION

Did your mother love red velvet cake? Or did your father love apple pie? You could always consider serving one of their favorite foods at your graduation celebration. Most graduates have a celebratory gathering after their ceremony. This can be anything from a small gathering with close friends and family to something much larger.

This tradition typically includes sharing a meal together, whether at home or at a restaurant. These meals can be a good time to honor your loved one in an unorthodox – and delicious – way.

Desserts are the easiest way to incorporate this, but you can be more creative if you wish. Maybe you can serve a favorite family side dish they brought to all gatherings.

You could even serve their favorite entrée if it’s easy to serve to several people (casseroles, lasagnas, and other similar types of food work well) so they can partake in something so important.

BRING ALONG A SMALL TOKEN THAT REMINDS YOU OF THEM

If jewelry is not something you’d appreciate, then you may want to consider a token of some kind to keep with you for your graduation day.

Memorial Coin

Memorial coins originate from military service. They are similar to challenge coins that bear an organization's insignia or emblem. They are given out to organization members.

While they were only solely part of military service, in modern times they have branched out to be used in many other ways. From them, we see the development of a memorial coin.

These coins are designed as a memorial keepsake for a deceased family member or loved one. An image of the deceased is engraved on one side through a photo-engraving process. On the other side, biographical information, quotes, or other information can be engraved. You can easily slip a memorial coin into your pocket to keep with you throughout your graduation day.


Worry Stones

Worry stones come from an old tradition of keeping a smooth, polished gemstone, usually in the shape of an oval with a thumb-sized indentation, in your pocket or purse. They are typically used for relaxation or anxiety relief.


Favorite Accessory

Taking a small token of your loved one with you for your graduation ceremony and celebration doesn’t need to involve anything new. You can always take something that belonged to them or something that reminds you of them.

People find comfort in these small things like ribbon, pennies, paper clips, or even a certain type of candy. You can take that small item with you through your day to remind you of your loved one.

HAVE A SMALL MEMORIAL AT YOUR CELEBRATION

Just because your loved one is gone, that doesn’t mean you can’t include them in your graduation celebration (whatever you decide to do). You may want to set a place for them at your graduation dinner (if you have one).

You can have your favorite photo framed and set there as well. If you would like something less intrusive, you can consider setting up a photo elsewhere in your home during the day or evening of the ceremony.

INCORPORATE THEIR PHOTO INTO YOUR GRADUATION MEMORIES AND PHOTOS

Another way to include your loved ones is to incorporate them into your graduation memorabilia in some form or fashion. One of the easiest ways to do so is by bringing something of theirs into your moment.

For example, one young woman lost both her parents while she was attending college. As part of her graduation photos, she decided to honor her parents in an unexpected way. Sequoia Smith posted photos of herself in her graduation cap posing with photos of her parentst. It was one way she was able to keep her connection to them while allowing herself to move forward, knowing they would be proud of her.

You may want to consider something similar. You can take graduation photos with a photograph of your loved one in addition to any others you were planning to take. You will have these photos forever, making the deceased part of your big day in a way that you can look back and remember for years to come.

INCORPORATE THEIR FAVORITE FLOWER OR COLOR INTO YOUR GRADUATION GARB

Many people – both male and female – are drawn to certain flowers or colors. It's natural to have a favorite of either (or both) of these at some point in our lives. If your loved one expressed their appreciation of those things, you can add it into your attire or celebration in one of several ways.

You can wear a shirt, dress, or even an accessory in their favorite color. For many graduation ceremonies, your actual clothing will be hidden beneath the robes. Ultimately, this won't affect the gravitas or seriousness of the ceremony even if you wear a bright pink or vivid blue!

It can be something as small as a ring with their favorite gemstone or as overt as a tie or hair accessory that draws attention. This is, after all, your graduation.

You should be free to honor your loved ones however you wish. For their favorite flower, one of the easiest things to do is simply to pin that blossom to your garb. You can pin it to your outer robes, the lapel of your shirt, or have it in your hair.

You could also have a bouquet or flower arrangement made with their preferred flowers. While you may not be able to take it to the ceremony, you can have it set up at home or elsewhere if you plan to have any kind of celebration or gathering of your own. You could use them to create a centerpiece on a table; it’s an unobtrusive way to honor them on your big day. It’s also subtle enough to avoid any potentially distressing questions about the nature of the arrangements.

Other Resources For Grief

If you or someone you know is struggling with their grief following the death of a loved one, don’t hesitate to reach out for help. You can call 1-800-273-TALK(8255) toll-free anywhere in the United States to reach the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline. This is a national network of local crisis centers that provides free and confidential emotional support to people in suicidal crisis or emotional distress 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.

STUDENT GRIEF SUPPORT GROUPS

Most schools and academic organizations had dedicated grief counseling available for any student who has lost someone. You can typically find information about these groups through your administration office on campus. To find a group in your area, you can also visit the Coalition to Support Grieving Students website for all local organizations dedicated to helping students through their grief.

ONLINE GRIEF SUPPORT GROUPS

There are many sources online available to anyone who is grieving. If you don’t feel comfortable meeting strangers in person, you may find an online community better suited to your personal demographics and identity. You may want to look at groups dedicated to such things on social media platforms or by searching for “grief support groups” online in your area.

FRIENDS & FAMILY

As you undergo this painful experience, there is no reason for you to do so alone. Reach out to your friends and family members as a first step. Facing this ordeal alone will solve nothing and, at worse, might be a disservice to your loved ones.

THERAPIST

There are some issues that you can’t fully express to the people in your life, even if you know they love you. For those, it’s always good to reach out to a licensed therapist. Trained grief counselors offer support, advice, and (most importantly) a sounding board for your emotions and feelings. With their help, you are better prepared to process your grief and move forward from it.

And if you aren’t getting your needs met by your current mental health provider? Seek out another one that better suits your needs. GoodTherapy.Org has a great search function to find viable therapists in your area.

Graduation Grief Frequently Asked Questions

How do you celebrate with a graduate who is grieving?

It's important to remember that everyone grieves differently. What is welcome by one person may be seen as difficult or unwanted by another. The nature of an appropriate graduation celebration for someone grieving depends entirely on that person. You may want to determine a few key facts before you plan any sort of celebration with the graduate, including whether or not the graduate is prepared to spend time in a social environment, even among friends or family.

They may want an excuse to attend a social gathering outside their home as it can provide a good reprieve from being alone with their thoughts or keep them from dwelling on any negative thoughts. You may want to consider a small party, taking them out for dinner with a group, or attending a larger event with their friends or family.

Conversely, they may not feel up to spending time with people. If that's the case, you might want to consider a smaller celebration of only a few people. Maybe you can cook dinner - or order take-out – including some of their favorite food.

What is a good gift for a graduate who is grieving?

Gifts are always appreciated, even if they may not seem so in the moment. Many times, a grieving person may not realize how important a gift is until they have time to process it fully. However, that shouldn’t deter you from considering getting them something in celebration, even if it is a small token at the time. There are many ways to celebrate an accomplishment in someone’s life even if they may feel non- traditional at the time. Take your cues from what the person may want the most and make your plans surrounding that.

Good gifts depend entirely on who is receiving them. Some common gifts to give to a graduate who may be grieving might be:

  • Pocket Token
  • Memorial Jewelry
  • Favorite Food
  • Quilt or blanket

If you want more suggestions, then you can consider our Top 25 Grieving Gifts as a guide to other gift ideas.

How do you honor a deceased loved one during graduation?

There are many ways to honor a deceased loved one during your graduation ceremony and your celebration. You can choose to wear or bring a token of remembrance with you on your day. You can honor them in the celebration by featuring their favorite food, color, or flower in that process. You can even simply have a photo of them placed somewhere prominent to remind you that they are

What type of remembrance of my mom should I carry with me during the graduation ceremony?

Losing a parent so close to your graduation can be devastating. One way to make the day easier for you is to bring a token of remembrance with you for the day. There are many things you can consider for just such a thing, including:

  • Decorating your graduation cap to honor her
  • Wearing her favorite color
  • Wearing a piece of her jewelry
  • Bringing a photo engraved keychain
  • Having a unique piece of memorial jewelry made in her honor
  • Pin her photo to your graduation garb

Should I still have a graduation celebration if my parent just died?

While the answer to this question depends on several factors – we do feel that you should acknowledge the event in some way even if you do not choose a full celebration. No one will judge you if you choose not to have a large celebration. They also won’t feel as if you are being unfilial if you do choose to celebrate. After all, your parent would be proud of your accomplishment!

When you are grieving, you may not always feel like celebrating any occasion – even one as important as your graduation – but despite that feeling, you may want to do something to honor the day. More than that, you can honor your deceased parent in your celebration in some way.

Graduating From Graduation Grief

It can be difficult to move through the biggest moments of our lives without the ones we love by our side. For anyone who has lost someone they love, it can be difficult to acknowledge that it may happen sooner than we would like. That doesn’t mean we cannot keep them with us for these moments, even if it is not the way we once thought it would be.

Your graduation should be a time of joy and looking forward to the future. When you are grieving, it may be difficult to see that future without the shadow of your loss. However, you may find solace in celebrating the memory of your loved one and honoring their legacy – you.

April 30, 2022 by Frances Kay