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The developmental impact of missing life’s milestone moments

Carlene Fider, Ph.D., discusses the loss and grief associated with missed milestones due to the COVID-19 pandemic from a human development perspective.

The COVID-19 pandemic has reshaped major life events for millions, if not billions, of people around the world. Some of these events have simply been put on hold; others have been canceled altogether—moments in time people may never have another chance to experience. From walking across the stage at graduation in front of friends and family to walking down the aisle toward the love of your life, missed milestone moments can conjure feelings of loss and grief.

Experiencing ambiguous loss

Dr. Pauline Boss coined the term ambiguous loss in the 1970s. It most commonly presents itself as “a relational disorder caused by the lack of facts surrounding the loss of a loved one.” However, the concept is not contained to the loss of an individual, and COVID-19 cancelations and closures are forcing a much wider range of people who experience this type of loss.

“This is definitely one of the major things we see happening in terms of the developmental process,” says Carlene Fider, Ph.D., core faculty in Pacific Oaks College’s School of Human Development. “This is due to the array of milestone events that individuals are expecting to experience during the pandemic but are unable to really be fully engaged. People are left searching for answers, and this can begin to complicate the grieving process.”

Graduation is a perfect example. Around the country, these ceremonies have been canceled, affecting students at all grade levels. Even the military has canceled basic training graduation ceremonies for every branch until further notice.

Veronica Estrada, Ed.D., faculty in Pacific Oaks’ School of Human Development, was excited for her daughter’s high school graduation this year. Now she acknowledges the moment that both she and her daughter have been looking forward to for years will probably never come—along with senior prom and her final softball season.

“When you’re a senior, it’s supposed to be one of the most memorable years of your life,” Dr. Estrada says. “You cherish the connections with your friends because you’re most likely moving to a new environment to make new friends soon. But now they’re sitting in isolation, hanging out virtually instead. And the things that they saw other seniors do—of course, they want those same memories.”

While many educators and families have gotten creative in trying to fill the void—from drive-by graduation ceremonies to principals personally delivering diplomas to homes—it is still a once-in-a-lifetime event many current graduates will simply never get to experience.

Ambiguous loss may also be experienced by those currently unable to physically be there for the death of a loved one—and ensuing burial traditions—or birth of a new child.

“This ambiguous loss ultimately leads to the idea of frozen grief for many individuals,” Dr. Fider says. “And this is because our current circumstances have impeded the ability for grieving to run its ‘natural’ course.”

Grief frozen in time

Many people are familiar with the natural course of the grieving cycle:

  1. Denial
  2. Anger
  3. Bargaining
  4. Depression
  5. Acceptance

However, in a time of so much loss, this grieving cycle can essentially become frozen in time, known as frozen or delayed grief. People are unable to move forward and so the grieving process is delayed or may not follow a natural pattern.

“This is something happening at the subconscious level because there may be other things that someone is grieving that takes priority,” Dr. Fider says. As an example, she says that someone who may have missed a major milestone event—such as graduation—may also have a family member or close friend who has passed away due to COVID-19.

“But this grief they have suppressed, this frozen grief, may crop up without you anticipating it. You may be invited to a graduation event in the future and it triggers the fact that you missed your own—and now you’re overcome with this sadness and wondering why.”

Dr. Fider adds that a tip for coping with this is simply an awareness that it can happen. Be conscious of the fact that you have not allowed yourself to grieve something and recognize that it is healthy to allow yourself to do so.

“Don’t build a house of grief and decide you’re going to move into it,” Dr. Fider says. “That’s never healthy for development. However, being able to grieve everything, even missed events that occur in the process of this pandemic, is definitely important.”

Anticipatory grief

Often associated with families that have a loved one suffering from Alzheimer’s or a terminal illness, anticipatory grief is also becoming more prevalent among the general public due to the COVID-19 pandemic people are grieving the loss of milestone events before they actually lose them.

“We tend to think about anticipatory grief in terms of individuals with cognitive decline or terminal illness. You see this person whom you love declining every day, and you know they will eventually pass away—and so you’re grieving out of anticipation of the grief to come,” Dr. Fider says. “This same concept now applies to people anticipating the loss of major events—whether it’s an international trip they’ve been planning or a wedding likely to get postponed because of so much uncertainty surrounding the current situation.”

She adds that it is important for individuals to understand and accept the emotions they feel. “Sit with it,” she says. “It is important for people to process it to better understand how to navigate the situation. Sure, a wedding can be replanned, but right now the emotions you feel are real. I think many people will ultimately use this experience to change the way they value certain things. This is an opportunity for people to reevaluate structures – personal or societal – that exist and begin to engineer effective ways to engage with individuals in meaningful ways though there is loss and despite physical distance.”

The best antidote to anticipatory grief is—all clichés aside—living in the current moment. Living too much in the future, especially a future so undetermined, will only take away from what you can find happiness in today.


Learn more about Human Development at Pacific Oaks College

If you would like to learn more about our human development programs, visit the human development program page or fill out the form below to request more information.

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