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Missing Milestones

Strategies for Coping

Canceled prom. Wave-parades for graduates. Postponed weddings. Baby showers through video conferencing.

Feelings of joy and excitement are being replaced with disappointment and sadness as people grapple with missing major milestones due to COVID-19. How you’ve handled stressful situations in the past will largely determine your ability to cope.

“We are going through an unprecedented time. This could mean an unprecedented array of emotions all together,” says Danesh A. Alam, MD, medical director of Behavioral Health Services at Northwestern Medicine Central DuPage Hospital.

Strategies for Coping

By definition, the word cope means to deal effectively with something difficult. Stewart A. Shankman, PhD, chief of psychology at Northwestern Memorial Hospital, says, “An individual’s pre-existing coping skills and personality are going to play a huge role in how they deal with loss.”

Your past behaviors in response to stress are a good indication of how you will tolerate stress now. “The experience of stress is normal. But how you deal with it is based on your life experience and how you have dealt with stress in the past. We’re creatures of habit,” explains Dr. Alam.

Coping skills are applied every day, with or without conscious thought. You may turn to healthy behaviors like exercise or meditation. Others may opt for unhealthier behaviors, a notorious example of which is alcohol abuse.

“Loss is upsetting for a lot of people, but what can help is reframing the situation to cope with it,” says Dr. Shankman.

Reframing is part of cognitive behavioral therapy, which helps individuals focus and modify their thought patterns. For example, instead of mourning the cancellation of a graduation or postponed wedding, try to acknowledge what the events represent.

“You can still focus on the things milestones were supposed to represent or commemorate,” explains Dr. Shankman. For example, a graduation can signify the education you've received and the next chapter of your life, much like a wedding can honor your love and new life together.

And that’s exactly what people are doing.

As the world continues to navigate through these unchartered waters, people are finding more creative ways to celebrate. “When faced with loss and stress, people have come up with creative alternatives like drive-by birthday parties, online happy hours and virtual weddings. Twenty years from now, these events are going to be very memorable,” says Dr. Shankman. “I think after the restrictions get lifted and people are able to enjoy their milestones and have their parties, the events will feel even more special because of the wait and the contrast from such a stressful, upsetting time.”

In the meantime, it’s important to take care of your mental healthCombat stress and check in with loved ones often to help with feelings of loneliness or isolation. If necessary, get professional help. “There are a number of resources, including telehealth, that take care of the barriers of getting care,” says Dr. Alam. “Self-help is great, but for the vulnerable, it may not be enough.”

Looking Out for Others

In addition to looking out for your own well-being, it's important to stay connected with others and make sure they’re coping well, too.

It's especially important for parents to mirror healthy behaviors for their children. “Children tend to mirror their parents' behaviors,” says Dr. Alam. He recommends taking the time to help children understand and make sense of the new challenges.

For young adults and teenagers who were supposed to enjoy milestones such as graduation or prom, it may be particularly difficult. Many may be experiencing feelings of loneliness, sadness, anxiety and frustration during this time. Acknowledging their feelings is a good first step. It's also important to have empathy and understand the loss and disappointment — especially if the events are permanently cancelled.

“Families should discuss strategies to cope,” says Dr. Alam. “Isolation is not the same as safe physical distancing. As far as celebration is concerned, there are other ways to celebrate.”

Both experts agree: People are resilient. And this will pass. Although celebrations and milestones might look different, creativity and the ability to rise above continue to persist.

Northwestern Medicine Behavioral Health Services