Joy and grief Together - Empty Nesting

This email is long. So feel free to skip it and come back next week. 

I wrote most of it in my journal. I decided to share it because you most likely remember this, are experiencing it, will be, or know someone who is. 

Last August, we helped Ethan – our only child – move into his dorm for his first year of college

It's a big milestone moment for any kid, but it felt like one of the most significant in my journey as a mother

On the one hand, it was exhilarating

Ethan embarked on a long college selection process of searching and applying, including all the paperwork, auditions, doubts, rejection, celebration, and lots of waiting.  By May,  he committed to the University of Florida with a Bright Futures scholarship in a musical theatre program that only accepted five (yes, 5) first-year students. My heart overflowed with gratitude because he was excited, happy,  and hopeful.  

Simultaneously, it felt utterly devastating... like the slow, painful death of our family of three as we knew it. 

My grieving began in the second half of his senior year, even though I didn't know it. All the special "for the last time" senior year moments – all the events and celebrations – were a reminder of the "never again" memories of his high school years. I could feel the clock ticking on the precious time we had left, and I felt increasingly teary

Last summer, I was trying to soak up the goodness of him being home. My head knew it was normal for him to be a moody know-it-all who wanted to hang out with his friends, but it didn’t match the idyllic last summer I imagined. 


As the day drew closer, the heartbreak crept into my chest with a crushing weight, and with it came some weird kind of life review.

I began remembering and replaying all my mistakes as a mom: how much I could have done better, things I shouldn't have done or said, and ways I didn't prepare him. If only I could do it over. One day, over lunch, I apologized for my missteps that caused hurt and held space for him to voice his experience. Acknowledging and making efforts to repair childhood wounds is something I didn't receive as a teen, and it was what I could do with the regret I felt.  

And then, after hours of worrying and planning, the day came to move him into his dorm and out of our home. 

The ride home felt especially long as the tears ran down my face. They were tears of grief and happiness. Because despite what some say, you can hold both at the same time. 

I had convinced myself that it wouldn't be that big of an adjustment since I saw him little during his busy senior year. I figured I’d be fine. I had built a life and business outside of my child. 

While that was true, I had also poured my heart into nourishing, protecting, and worrying about him for 18 years. How many hours of my day were spent with him in my mind, factored into every decision? Even when he was busy with his life, he filled my awareness as I considered when and how he was eating, what he needed, where he was going, and when he'd be home. 

How was it possible that he was now living a life completely separate from me? 

No one fully explained how hard it would be to let go of the person who occupied so much space and time in my life for so long. The very same space I sometimes resented not having when he was young, but now was grieving. 

It wasn't just him starting a new life. I was, too. 

When I woke up home the first morning and walked by his empty (and shockingly clean) bedroom, I felt a new wave of grief. 

It was the same on that first trip to the grocery store when I stopped by the bananas,๐ŸŒ realizing I didn't have to put them in my cart unless I wanted them.

Those first few weeks were filled with feelings of loss and emptiness. I had to constantly remind myself that he wasn't coming in the door, that I didn't need to make him dinner, that I wouldn't know who he was with unless he decided to tell me. And he didn't call or text much. He was rightfully absorbed in his new life, making new friends. I felt such joy at how happy he was.  I also felt a little lost.  

And then, the days passed, and I emerged from my grief and began to adjust to this new phase of life. I was officially an empty nester. 

And there were things I learned to appreciate. Like:

  • Knowing where all my cups are. ๐ŸฅคThey no longer go missing.
  • Not finding the washer full of wet clothes. 
  • Easier meal planning, shopping, and cooking. 
  • More peace, quiet, and space for myself. 
  • A much tidier house.
  • More connection and quality time with Matt.
  • More freedom to travel.
  • A new opportunity to dream my own dream.

Yes, I had to empty the dishwasher myself, but at least I  knew where everything was. ๐Ÿ˜‚

Plus, the conversations Ethan and I had now were even more meaningful. 

Just when I felt I had really adjusted, he came back home for the summer with an incredible paid internship. 

Cue joy and pride and excitement. 

Cue missing cups, arguments, laughing, and singing. 

Cue less space, quiet, and time. 

Cue more appreciation for my cooking. 

Cue movie nights and fun weekends.  

It was another adjustment. Our relationship had shifted. And so did my role.   Sometimes, it was really hard to remember that. 

And then, it was time for him to return to school last week. Again.

Except this time, he was driving and moving in himself. Without us. 

And I don't know if he'll be coming home next summer.  Or any summer. 

And there I was, equally ready for him to go back so I could reclaim my space and time but also teary, emotional, and desperate to hang on a little longer.

Because despite what they say, you can feel both at the same time. 

I  thought it would be easier for me. Like how easy it was for him to move back to college.  It wasn't. I cried last week. I also threw my back out (but that’s another email). 

And I know I will absolutely adjust once again.  With all my cups in the cupboard. I get to create what I want this next phase to look like. 

And while I don't have any big lessons or points to make here, I'm writing to remind you that this cycle plays out in our lives. 

We open up and hold on, and then we have to let go

The more we love, the more our heart breaks

Joy and grief together. 

I'm okay. You're ok. 

I’m feeling it all. 

Thanks for reading this.


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