After working in international schools for 14 years, this time brings the same mix of emotions, chaos, and celebrations regardless of what country or school I am at. Spring is here to remind us that we can be excited about the renewal of life. And, at the same time, the end of the school year is approaching to remind us that change and transition is inevitable. We are saying hello to the summer break and getting ready to say goodbye to people in our community. Whether you are dealing with an expected transition such as a graduation or grade promotion OR moving to a new place or school, it’s time to start thinking about how to move forward in a healthy way.
When we work directly with students leaving schools, we often use something called R.A.F.T. to guide our conversations: Reconcile (Are we leaving in a good way?), Affirmation or Appreciation (What are you grateful for? How can you show it?), Farewells (How do you want to say goodbye?), Think Destination (What do you know about your next grade, home, or school? What are you excited about?). Using this allows us to reflect on our past and prepare for the future. BUT, what if moving through these steps isn’t enough? While R.A.F.T. might be helpful, some experts prefer to connect big life transitions to processing grief. This may seem like a dramatic way to look at change but grief can come in many forms. Whether death of a loved one or a life we once knew, we are losing something that brought a certain amount of value to us.
Beliefs around grief are often approached from a religious or anthropological perspective. However, for me, I’m fascinated by looking at this with a neurological lens as it allows me to view grief as an opportunity to learn. Research shows that the brain devotes effort to mapping where the people or things we love are so we can find them when needed. The brain also prefers habits and predictions over new information. Therefore, when new information cannot be ignored, like the absence of something once we loved, we struggle. Grieving requires the difficult task of throwing out what we once knew and living without it. Since learning is something we do our whole lives, viewing grief as a type of learning can make it feel more familiar and give us the patience to allow this process to unfold.
The grief process has historically been framed as moving through “5 stages” (denial, anger, bargaining, depression, then acceptance). However, psychologists now see this less as a step-by-step process that we have to move through, and more as an individual experience where someone will deal with any or all of these at any moment. In a sense, there is no “right” way to grieve or transition and we will all learn how to move through changes in our own way. When an entire school community is going through a grief process at the same time, we will all be processing and learning something very different. And honestly, this is one of the things I love about the human experience; it can be both the same and completely different simultaneously. How amazing is that?!
I am often the person at gatherings who likes to quietly slip out the backdoor without saying goodbye to many people. I think of it as my magic trick and people who know me understand I can disappear quickly. However, when dealing with bigger life transitions and changes, this is not a time to sneak out of the backdoor and pretend nothing happened. Instead, it is a time to thoughtfully move through the transition process and acknowledge all the emotions that come with grieving what once was. The true magic is found when we embrace the sadness, nerves, excitment, and moments of calm as the world around us shifts with or without our permission.
And true courage is found when some of these emotions or responses are too big to handle on our own and we ask for support from those we trust.
For all of those leaving the AAS community…I wish you and your family an amazing journey!
Denise Granai ES Counselor & Educational Phycologist