Smiling Through Tears

11/03/2016 08:55 pm ET

Most parents know that at some point their grown children will move out of their home. The awareness of its inevitability, however, does little to lessen the feelings of loss.

September was special in the rural Iowa town where I grew up. If it had been a good year, if the corn had tasseled on time and the rains came when needed, there was palpable excitement for the impending harvest. “Farm kids” were excused from school for days at a time to help drive tractors and wagons that ferried this yellow gold from the combine to the farmstead. If one farmer was sick or injured, all the neighbors pitched in and helped. All energy, all talk, all focus was on the harvest. When at last the combines and augers were silent and silos were filled, the fields that earlier teemed with 8-foot stalks lazily waving at the horizon were reduced to coarse stubble - mere reminders of the abundance once contained therein. An eerie yet satisfied silence would fall across the land. Yes, it had been a good year. The harvest was done. The circle had completed itself yet again.

I no longer live in rural Iowa. Yet I still feel the circles of my life beginning, skipping along their path (sometimes with stops, starts, and detours), and finally coming to completion. Whether the circle involved being pregnant, teaching a semester class, or writing an article, I recognize the planting, nurturing, and harvest that are so deeply ingrained in my psyche. There is a time and a season for everything.

This fall was no exception. My youngest son has moved to his college dorm. For the first time in over 27 years, my day will not be structured around the tasks and responsibilities of a mother with children living at home. For the first time, I join the proverbial group called “empty nesters”. The harvest has arrived. My emotions have yet to catch up with reality, as my profound sadness at the loss of Steven’s constant presence swirls and dances with my excitement for his wonderful adventure and my certitude that he is ready for this launch. The transition is not unexpected or unanticipated. I have known from the time my children were born (in my head even if not my heart) that they would grow up and move out. The awareness of its inevitability, however, does little to lessen the feelings of loss.

The most interesting thing is the reaction I get from other people. The majority of them immediately begin to regale me with wonderful stories of freedom – no more after-school activities, sporting events, dinner on someone else’s schedule, constant worry. They talk of rediscovering joys, hobbies, and friendships that have taken lower priority during childrearing years. They say I should have a party to celebrate my new liberation.

I know there is truth in what they say. I already see the potential for positive implications in my life. Yet part of me cries out in protest. I don’t want them to take away or deny my grief before I have a chance to experience it. I refuse to minimize the importance of my relationship with Steven by ignoring the negative impact of its loss. I know from long experience and research that I need to feel my sadness in order to heal; I need to grieve in order to freely embrace the freedom about which they speak. Grief is a circle all its own, one that cannot healthily be broken or truncated.

We often attempt this same circumvention after someone dies. I so frequently hear people “comfort” a mourner by saying, “Don’t carry on so. He wouldn’t want you to be sad. Besides, he's in a much better place. How can you say you love him and yet still wish he was back here on earth instead of releasing him? Come on, now. Dry your tears, be happy for him, and move on with your life the way he’d want you to.”

There is truth in this well-meaning advice; however, it is only half the truth. It admits to the goal toward which healing is aimed – coming to peace with the loss and gaining the strength to create a new future. Yet by denying the loss and the sadness, it attempts to leapfrog over the tasks of grief that are absolutely necessary in order to accomplish that very healing.

Tension between opposites is constitutive of grief. I can be very happy for my absent loved one, whether because I believe he is in heaven or because he is embarking on the marvelous adventure of college, yet at the very same time I can be deeply sad because I miss him. Likewise, I can be looking to the past, asking, “Why? How did this happen?”, while at the same time asking “What now?” and trying to build a new future. I can gratefully recognize that I now have less responsibility in my daily life, yet I can sorely miss those very responsibilities and the interactions they engendered.

As I help my precious son pack up his belongings to move away, then, I will rejoice for him and I will cry for me. Both are normal. Both are necessary. Neither shall be denied.

The harvest is here. It has indeed been a very good year (or nineteen years to be more precise). The field of our home will soon seem like little more than stubble. Yet the soil beneath that stubble remains fertile, and when it is time, when I am ready, when the season begins anew, I will plant a different crop. Right now I can’t look that far ahead; the void is too big, the loss too fresh. So for now, I will sit and remember, cry and laugh, and allow the loss to penetrate my soul so that I may heal and the circle may reach its completion.

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