mortarboard cap and diplomas being help in the hair by multiple people

This teen with special needs visited his late mother’s grave to tell her “I did it. I graduated”

Graduations are always a reason to celebrate. However, sometimes loved ones aren’t there to witness such an achievement. And that was the case for Paul Marshall Jr., a young man with special needs. When his name was announced at the graduation ceremony in 2020, he danced on his way to receive his diploma. “I’m just happy when they called my name,” he said.


His happiness was well-deserved. He had faced medical and emotional twists throughout his journey. And his mother wasn’t there to cheer for him at his graduation. So Paul Jr. found a way to include her in the ceremony. Even a year later, the story brings tears to the eyes of anyone who hears it, especially for those who also missed loved ones at life’s milestones.


Student With Special Needs Visits Mother’s Grave Before His Graduation

Latonya Marshall had passed away in 2009 after battling cancer when Paul Jr. was just nine years old. “She always wanted the best for Paul Jr.,” said  Paul Sr., the father. “Her last dying words were, ‘I just want to see Paul Jr. graduate.’


Unfortunately, she missed it as her son succeeded from grade to grade. But she was not to be left out of his graduation day. So as Paul Jr. neared the momentous occasion, he told his father they have to take a detour before they drive to his school for the ceremony. 


“A week before he said, I want to go by mom’s grave and take some flowers,” said Paul Sr.


And they did. Paul Jr. was dressed up, ready for his graduation, and holding a bouquet of yellow flowers. His father filmed him as he approached the gravesite and spoke: “Mommy, I’ve got something to say. I did it. I graduated today. I know you’d be proud of me and happy. I love you so much.”


When Paul Jr. finished his speech, he placed the flowers against the grave, kissed his hand, and touched it to the headstone. His simple gesture speaks volumes about his love and grief for his mother. But Paul Jr. is comforted that she is happy and safe in the afterlife. “G-d has my mom,” Paul Jr. explained. “And my grandmother will take care of my mom.[1]


Read: The Different Colors of Emoji Hearts Actually Have Different Meanings


An Empathetic and Optimistic Teen

Paul Jr. was born with Down syndrome and “one functioning kidney and a defective heart,” according to his father. His mother died when he was nine years old. And a year before his graduation, he had a critical surgery that replaced his heart valve. Soon after, he needed a kidney transplant, an eight-hour procedure where his father donated his kidney. But the special needs teen won’t let life drag him down.


Paul Jr. could be hospitalized for five days, and on the sixth day, he’s out and laughing,” said Paul Sr. 

He’s spiritually grown me,” said Lamica, Paul Jr.’s stepmother. “He’s taught me how to be empathetic, sympathetic, and loved.”

Despite all of the hardships he endured, the teen has boundless optimism and infectious love of life and other people. 


If you’re having a bad day, or going through something, Paul Jr. is the person you want to be around and talking to that day,” said Paul Sr.

Graduating has another bittersweet edge for him. “I’ll miss high school and I’m very sad about it,” said Paul Jr.

The special needs teen plans to attend Bossier Parish Community College. [2]

Honoring a Lost Loved One During Major Milestones

When you lose someone, your grief may subside, but you will never stop missing them. Their memories are with you forever, and you feel their missing presence the most at major milestones. Graduations, weddings, promotions, births, and other happy occasions were when that loved one would have been there cheering and proud of you. This adds bittersweetness to what should have been a happy time. [3]

However, there are small ways to feel close to the one lost, like how Paul included his mother on his graduation day. First of all, it’s important to acknowledge the loss. Talking about them will help them feel close. Know that they would want you to be happy on this day, so try to enjoy it. Many people need to include them more tangibly into their special day. If you feel the same, keep a picture of the lost loved one in your pocket or a locket or charm. You could even wear it as a pin close to your heart. Also, keep them in mind during the preparations. You could choose their favorite cake flavor, flower, gemstone, song, or other bits of memorabilia to include them at the event.

Remember, you don’t need to shy away from feeling grief on your happy day. Honoring a lost loved one could bring more comfort to the milestone. You are keeping them with you throughout the happy occasion.

Keep Reading: When You Lose Your Mother, You Lose A Part Of Yourself


  1. The Good Stuff: Before the Dance.” KSLA 12. Doug Warner. June 26, 2020
  2. Teen With Down Syndrome Visits Mom’s Grave To Celebrate High School Graduation In Emotional Clip.McGill Media. Shilpa Das Gupta. July 7, 2020
  3. “Grief: Coping with reminders after a loss.” Mayo Clinic. November 14, 2020 
Sarah Biren
Freelance Writer
Sarah is a baker, cook, author, and blogger living in Toronto. She believes that food is the best method of healing and a classic way of bringing people together. In her spare time, Sarah does yoga, reads cookbooks, writes stories, and finds ways to make any type of food in her blender.