Dealing with Post-Graduation Sadness

I’ve graduated four times now: high school, Associates, Bachelor’s and Master’s degrees, and I’ve begun to see a pattern to the emotional side of the process.

I’m a *fairly* normal person, so, before each graduation, I looked forward to my imminent release from homework, full-time daily schedules, and the wild balance of multiple commitments. Surrounding my graduation ceremony like a warm hug, the days were filled to the brim with the wild joy both the accomplishment and the release can bring. But then, when the parties stopped and the buzz of accomplishment wore off (and the letters containing cash thinned and then disappeared) I would always experience, to some degree, an emptiness and sadness. Gradually, I’d emerge and, over time, I developed a few strategies to help that emergence. But acknowledging and understanding why I was sad was in important part of growing past my post grad blues. As I observe and speak with others, I realize I’m not alone in feeling this way, and it makes sense.

Grief is the healthy companion to loss. When you graduate, you lose a lot: a familiar environment, a relatively risk free haven to practice being good at your future career, and your community. A colleague once told me that we have three foundational stabilizers in life: relationships, work, and home. When you graduate, you lose a version of all three, and suddenly, your identity is shaken right as you thought you were being reborn.

Like me, one of the things many students don’t realize is that the campus and surrounding area has become a kind of home. I can’t say I thought of my campuses as home environments while I was there, but they did sneak into becoming that way. As I was getting my Master’s, I spent hours holed up in my favorite desk in the library, or otherwise eyeballing the intrudor who had taken it like an affronted sparrow after grudgingly seating myself at an adjacent desk. During my bachelor’s degree, my friends and I had specific places around campus where we shared meals together. And of course, I slept on campus: some of my best sleep was during post-lunch art history class. I did lots of the home-things at school; many of us did. I didn’t realize how much the loss of familiar environments like my desk, my lunch spots, and my comfy theater chair, would hurt.

In many ways, you lose your job. Your job of being a student is clear cut. You get a syllabus that reads like a job-description in each class, and you do your work to get promoted to the next level. Your teacher guides you like a manager, and you grow by listening or grow by rebelling. Or you do nothing, but at least that is a predictable schedule too. Now, suddenly, you’re very ceremoniously thrown into the wild where things are not so clear cut; you’ve actually got to test how much your learning qualifies you for your real world experience. This can be terrifying at first. And you get to see how much you actually fit into the realities of the profession you studied. After my art degree, I was met with a hard truth: I did not fit. No matter how much I enjoyed making art, I simply did not fit into and did not like the art world in my vicinity. Loneliness set in the hardest after that particular graduation, and my grief lasted longer than the others.

Any loneliness you experience as part of grief is particularly augmented by losing, what I think, is the hardest piece of your trinity of stability: your school community. As I experienced, most particularly after my undergraduate graduation, friends leave, or you leave. Sometimes, both. This can be incredibly disorienting. We look to each other to see ourselves, and we lose that familiar guiding reflection from friends, colleagues and faculty after each graduation. I am watching my partner go through this now after his graduation. His was a tight community, and the loss of the daily gatherings, dependable study groups, and late night bitch sessions, is hitting him surprisingly hard. He is also realizing that, although school may have created a common context for a time, there are many people he doesn’t relate to as well as he thought he did. I have also experienced this, and it is a subtle way of losing relationships as well. Loss of community in any way after leaving school has caused us both real post-graduation greif.

So, how to deal?

As a self-professed expert at graduating things, I’d like to offer some strategies that helped me cope with post-grad grief:

  • Engage with old favorites, whether books, movies or music. For me, this is re-reading Pride and Prejudice and then watching the BBC version (I spurn all other versions, but that’s a different story).
  • Be proactive about seeing or calling long-time friends and family. These are the people that draw out the core of who you are, the part of you that hasn’t changed. Note: if you drink or imbibe other things, this is the context do it.
  • Make time to really face your emotional octagon. For me, this is journaling, and taking long walks. What I like about both of these activities is that there is a definitive end to both. This has allowed me to process the sadness, then to take breaks.
  • Hang with the friends that are still around. Call up the ones who are not. It will feel strange at first to make that time since it’s not a given, but it helps to do it, as your friends may be going through similar emotions.
  • Take a little time to dream. You’ve just accomplished a big dream, and it’s helpful to fill the gap with anther dream. Dreams guide us, and having a new direction provides some traction to keep moving through the grief.

If the sadness does not go away after some months (yes, this can take a while) or you see no positive development, consider getting professional help. It’s important not to get stuck, and sometimes, loss like this can surface other things. That’s where you may want the extra support.

After graduating, I, like every grad, was facing new challenges and fears. Shoring up my foundational identity, processing my grief, and feeling the support of the people I still had around me made the next steps more endurable. Talking about it with others, especially people who have gone through this kind of grief, is helpful. Normalizing it to those who will in the future is important too. By doing this, we can be better prepared for the professional communities we spent all that time in school to join. And maybe a little less afraid.

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Karah L Parks

Adjunct Professor, language nerd, comics creator, and expert shoulder-demon whisperer.