Alexandra Kennedy, MA, MFT
Alexandra Kennedy, MA, MFT
Alexandra Kennedy, MA, MFT
Psychotherapy Strategies for Grieving & Living Fully
Psychotherapy Strategies for Grieving & Living Fully
Psychotherapy Strategies for Grieving & Living Fully

GRIEF ARTICLES

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Empty Nest Full Heart

by Alexandra Kennedy

My husband and I pulled into the driveway of our house after a six hour drive on Highway 5 from Los Angeles. The sun was just setting over the sentinel poplar tree that towers at the entrance to our driveway. It greeted us with a green salute but this time I did not feel eager to return home. I felt dread. I didn't want to face the quiet house and my son's empty room. I had sobbed uncontrollably for hours, each mile of hot pavement disappearing under the wheels of the van taking me further from my son.

After months of preparation the inevitable moment had arrived-- my son was in college and my husband and I were returning home without him. I had known that this moment was coming but I had not believed it in my gut. It seemed as though just a little while ago that I had looked for the first time into his blue eyes, the color of a Chagall sky. Just born, he had lifted his head, eyes seeking mine. It was a meeting like no other I've ever experienced and it seemed to go on forever in a timeless dimension.

From that moment I was swept up into a whirlwind of mothering. Motherhood was the hardest challenge I had faced. Each developmental phase was followed by another, equally demanding or more so. Even though advice poured in from everywhere, I found that there was no 'right way' to parent; I had to slow down and pay attention to my child and to my own heart, in order to find the most loving, caring and nourishing response in each moment. And then I had to forgive myself when, exhausted and stretched to my limit, all I could access was frustration, impatience or anger. Watching Taylor grow into his own person, so full of vitality, energy and passion about life was worth the struggle. And this child daily offered me the opportunity to grow as he grew, to see myself in new ways, to own my power, and to learn to let go gracefully.

Early in my motherhood I had heard that the women in villages of India every year give up their most precious possession, in preparation for letting go of their children. It was unfortunate that our culture did not have a ritual such as this, for I did not feel prepared at all as Senior year arrived with its constant reminder of his departure: SATs, college applications, college visits. I was filled with conflicting emotions. I wanted to hang on to him; I wanted to let go gracefully. Deep inside I knew that his leaving was a necessary step in his growing up. Just like the young red tailed hawks circling over our land in the late spring squeal in protest that they have to now find their own food, Taylor would need to find his way into the world, however reluctantly. Meanwhile, I savored the few special moments with him, and tried not to think about his leaving.

Toward the end of Senior year, the reality was sinking in. He was accepted at four of the five schools he had applied to and the decision now weighed on him. As soon as he boarded the plane for a college visit and I walked away from the gate, my chest heaved with a terrible sadness. I felt surprised and even embarrassed, reluctant to show my husband or Taylor's girlfriend how upset I felt. Then I realized that I could no longer put off my grief. Taylor was leaving for college in just over three months. In the grip of that pain, I suddenly wasn't sure that I would be able to let go. In a panic, I even considered suggesting to him that he stay home and attend junior college. But I knew that this was a cop out; the grief was there for me to face and I settled into it.

Like the death of a parent, a child's going away to college marks a major life passage. Neither passage is acknowledged in our culture as it should be; as a result, many people aren't prepared for the impact of these two events. I spoke with a mother who had recently driven her son to college. Poignantly she spoke about her belief that the time with her son at home would never end, the mounting family tension as the summer progressed, her attempts to find people who understood what she was going through, the worry about what she had left out of her parenting, her anger at being forced into "early retirement" from a job she liked and then finally the lonely trip home without him.

As I listened, I began to sob, trying unsuccessfully to stop the copious flow of my tears. But I wasn't alone. The woman next to me was also crying quietly, as was the woman in front of me. I could hear quiet sobs dispersed all over the room. Large boxes of Kleenex were circling around and each time it passed me, I took four or five pieces, thinking that this would be enough but it never was. I kept crying, trying not to sob out loud. I was right on the edge of falling apart in that room of strangers. However I deeply appreciated that the parents' grieving and struggle to let go had been addressed and honored as part of the college orientation.

We returned home with packets full of information about campus life and academics as well as more understanding of the separation ahead of us. I began to write long lists of what Taylor would need while he, unwilling to face his immanent departure, immersed himself in socializing with his friends. Feeling a taste of the freedom he would have in college, he began to push for a later curfew. The tension was mounting and finally erupted one afternoon in a fight. Taylor was outraged that he we hadn't yet changed his curfew, and finally spat out "I'm sick of you." His words hurt me. I thought to myself but didn't say, "I'll be glad when you're gone" but I knew that I didn't mean it and that we were just both trying to hurt one another because we were afraid of the change in our relationship. In those moments I realized how easy it would be to devastate the other person to make it easier to leave or let go.

By August I was unraveling. I burst into tears at the slightest provocation. Everything reminded me that Taylor was leaving. I began to obsess over unfinished business. I worried that I had left something out of my mothering and watched critically how my son handled each aspect of his life. I moaned over his table manners which I realized now would never improve. I fretted over the daily tasks he still hadn't mastered. My husband kept telling me that we had instilled in him what we could but I somehow didn't believe him. It felt frightening to face that this part of my mothering was coming to a close.

I began telling acquaintances and store clerks that my son was leaving for college. I brightened when someone understood, offering their own stories. I took comfort in the fact that they too had suffered but had survived. "They come back", some said. "But it'll never be the same again," I thought. "You'll get your life back", others told me. "But I like the life I've had", I told them. A friend offered a useful new perspective that helped me much more than these other comments. He told me that I was not "losing" Taylor; I just had to become bigger in order to embrace him in my field-- 450 miles bigger. That seemed like a big order but I welcomed the possibility that this experience could make me bigger—a more powerful and compassionate person. Certainly the death of my father, painful as it had been, had opened me to new possibilities in myself. Grief continually reminds me of the power of the human spirit to heal and of the new beginnings in every ending.

A week before his departure date, I was standing in the doorway of Taylor's room, looking at him sitting on the edge of his bed. His newly bleached hair stuck up like a white scrub brush and his muscles, carefully nourished through a summer of lifting weights, bulged under his white t-shirt. He looked manly and yet vulnerable all at once; and I drank in the sight of him, knowing that in days he would no longer be sitting on this bed. "You look sad," he observed. I nodded that yes, I was. "Let's just cancel the university thing," he proposed, smiling his sweetest of smiles. "I can go to Junior College. I won't have to leave all my friends and family and you won't be sad." I paused, taken aback by his words. I was feeling sad; and there was a part of me that also wanted to cancel the whole college thing. However my job as a mother was to encourage Taylor to fly, while acknowledging his ambivalence and fears. I understood how big and frightening the world could look from the edge of his cozy nest. So I moved closer to him, saying, "Taylor, I know that it's hard on all of us, but this is an important step for you. You won't know what college is like until you try it. I'm going to be sad but I'll be OK. And besides the tuition is non-refundable." We laughed as I gave him a hug.

Finally, the day arrived. We packed his boxes, stereo and drum set into a borrowed van, drove to L.A., checked into a hotel, and had a "last supper". All through the evening I felt an underlying heaviness, while at the same time trying to savor each moment of this time together.

Since none of us slept well, we woke early and, full of apprehension, drove to his apartment complex. I had worried that Taylor would have a noisy apartment on the busy street; he had worried that his roommates would be nerds. Jon worried that he hadn't brought enough plugs and extension cords to set up Taylor's equipment. I was relieved that Taylor's apartment was sequestered in the interior of the complex. One by one we met his roommates—a six foot six engineering major sporting a goatee and a chain around his neck, a brawny business major who had been captain of the high school football team, and a pale, lean music major also from California. Taylor liked them all.

We spent the day hooking up Taylor's stereo and computer, unpacking clothes, putting up posters and stocking the kitchen. That night Jon and I left Taylor at his apartment and returned to our hotel. I was in a daze but as soon as my head hit the pillow I started to cry uncontrollably. Every time I thought of the next day, I cried harder, my body shaking under the sheets. Jon held me close as I cried myself to sleep. Unintimidated by my tears, he gave me the gift of just holding me close; he didn't say anything to try to make me feel better, for he knew this was a passage I had to feel my way through. Many of my grieving clients complain that their friends and partners cannot just be with them when they are in pain; those friends and partners want to "fix" the problem. I encourage my clients to communicate to their partners that it is enough just to be with a loved one as he or she is crying or feels sad.

The next morning we drove back to Taylor's apartment. He had slept badly, the outside light streaming into his face from the broken slat in the curtains. He missed his flat pillow from home that we had forgotten. The mattress pad had not held and was bunched up in the center of this bed. I pinned the corners while Jon helped him with his computer. The morning slipped away and our departure time loomed before us. We awkwardly walked out together and hugged goodbye by the trash bin—this was the moment I had rehearsed in my mind over and over. I didn't cry as I imagined I would. Taylor was emotional but holding himself together as he hugged us. Then he turned and started walking away toward the gym, waving over his shoulder.

This was it, the moment I had dreaded. We were leaving him behind. Once he had turned the corner of the building and was out of sight, Jon put his arm around me and guided me gently toward the van. I was crying softly. I sobbed hard as the van pulled out of the parking lot. Harder still as we turned onto the freeway. All the way home I cried. I sobbed for the ending of my relationship with Taylor as it had been, of our family as it had been; I sobbed for the absence of his daily presence in my life.

We arrived home to a house that felt unnaturally quiet and empty. I burst into tears as I opened the refrigerator door and saw the bean dip, strawberry banana yogurts and bottles of Orangina I had bought just for Taylor. There was already a message from him; he couldn't find one of his t- shirts and wanted to know if we could send that along with his pillow and razor. The next few days we talked with him every day. He was clearly enjoying himself, liked his roommates and his new freedom. Much to everyone's surprise, he was not homesick at all. Much to my surprise, the next few days were smooth for me; I didn't even feel the need to cry. My schedule was full with clients and visits with friends who were checking in on me. Even so, as the weeks passed, there was a big emptiness in my life that I did not want to ignore. The grief was pressing down on my chest and tears came often. I had just begun the process of letting go of my son.

  • Acknowledge the importance of this life transition. Your family as it was is changing, as is your relationship with your child. If you can tend to your own feelings of loss, you can support your child in his/her awkward steps toward independence.
  • Take time to grieve. Create a sanctuary for grieving (see www.alexandrakennedy.com or Chapter 4 of Losing a Parent) in your home that you can use in the months leading up to your son or daughter's departure and afterwards. Make room for the mixed emotions, ambivalence, uncertainties, fears.
  • Get the support of your friends and partner. Reassure them that they do not have to make you feel better; they can just be with you. Consider starting or joining a mother's support group.
  • Review your relationship with your child—what you regret and appreciate, what you left out of your parenting, what you have given your child, what you have learned about yourself. Be willing to honor this phase of your mothering, perhaps through a ritual.
  • Make room for the differences in how your family members will deal with this change. Be willing to let go of your expectations and open to things as they are.
  • Take time to regularly communicate with your family members about the upcoming changes. Listen to your child; acknowledge his/her fears and anxieties while keeping the bigger picture in mind. Understand that the pressure of separation may strain your relationship and that this may be a time of increased fighting.
  • Communicate with your spouse about the changes you both are experiencing in your marriage. Some couples find that they have neglected their marriage while they were raising their children; it is common for long term problems in the marriage to surface now. Many couples find this to be a good time for marriage counseling.
  • Explore who you are in the world after your child leaves home. Open to the emptiness and the possibilities within it. Explore new questions about the direction of your life. Give yourself permission to dream; cultivate interests you may have set aside during your parenting years. Set a goal to initiate at least two new ideas within the first few months after your child leaves for college.

Alexandra Kennedy MA is a psychotherapist and author of Losing a Parent (HarperCollins, 1991) and The Infinite Thread: Healing Relationships Beyond Loss (Beyond Words, April 2001). She lectures at universities, professional organizations and major conferences. She offers a unique perspective to grieving through her work with the imagination, weaving together inspiring case histories, practical advice, and experiential exercises. Alexandra has been interviewed in USA Today, the San Jose Mercury News, the San Francisco Examiner, New Woman and the Boston Herald as well as on NPR's "Talk of the Nation", CNN's "Sonja Live", KQED's "Family Talk," and "New Dimensions Radio". She is a faculty member at the University of California Santa Cruz Extension, and taught a popular graduate level course on dying and grieving at the Institute of Transpersonal Psychology for six years. Her articles have appeared in Yoga Journal, Mothering Magazine, Magical Blend and the California Therapist. Her website www.alexandrakennedy.com, offers resources for grieving, along with information about workshops. Alexandra's son is graduating this year from college. Another step in the letting go process! 

This article appears Online in Mothering Magazine.

Alexandra Kennedy

Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist
Santa Cruz, California
(831) 464-2083
alexandra@alexandrakennedy.com

Alexandra Kennedy

Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist
Santa Cruz, California
(831) 464-2083
alexandra@alexandrakennedy.com