Off to college: Celebrating your child and grieving their lossWritten by Catherine Wilson
What's inside this article
"This is the kitchen, and look . . . here are my dishes."
Slightly bewildered, I surveyed the communal kitchen in my daughter’s university dorm. How did we reach this moment so quickly? I wondered. I wasn’t ready for this . . . for my daughter to move away from home.
"I wrote my name on my bowl," my daughter said, "but I made a silly spelling mistake. Read what it says."
She pointed to a white dish placed on a shelf just above our heads.
Scribed around the rim, in black permanent marker, were the words, Joanna’s bowel.
"Given that you’re in the medical field, that should certainly discourage anyone else from using it," I chuckled, despite the tightness in my throat.
She had me laughing in the rain, yet again.
For the briefest instant, I was back in the not-so-long-ago, bent over a head of soft blonde curls and watching my daughter pour juice from a pink tea set. A moment remembered for its pleasure. This moment, here and now, would be remembered, too – for its bittersweet concoction of joy and sadness.
If I wasn’t ready for this, surely my daughter wasn’t either. Back in her room, Joanna inspected the gift she’d bought for her new roommate, then retied the bow for the third time.
"Do you think she’ll like it? Do you think she’ll really like it?" she asked.
"Of course . . . and I’m sure you’ll get along just fine," I soothed. But I knew there were deeper, unspoken questions that kept her awake long into the night. What would her courses be like? Could she accomplish all that would be expected of her? Had she made the right career choice?
Meanwhile, I wrestled with my own doubts. How secure were the dorms? Would the social environment distract her from her studies? Had medicine truly been her choice, or was it really mine?
There was a knock at the door. "All settled in?" asked the cheery dorm hostess. I felt decidedly unsettled, but it was my signal to leave. Dutifully, I took the hint. Joanna followed me downstairs to the parking lot.
"Thanks for not being a helicopter parent!" Joanna shouted outside the car’s window as the engine rumbled to life.
Don't be a helicopter parent
I faked a smile and waved. I had laughed about that once, at the parent orientation. The university liaison had urged us not to be helicopter parents – the kind that hovers, trying to keep their child under surveillance. Now, the only thing that could steel me to drive away from my daughter was the thought that I was driving toward the phone. I planned to call Joanna as soon as I reached home.
Out on the main road, telephone poles flicked past the car underscoring the growing distance between us – a distance that would be measured not only by geography, but by the many aspects of my daughter’s life that I would no longer share. Lord, I whispered, how will we feel like a family without her? The question fractured my resolve, and tears spilled down my cheeks.
Memories of letting go
Then it intruded: a memory of another time . . . another place . . . when leaving Joanna had felt just as terrible as this.
In Joanna’s grade one year we had moved to a new neighbourhood. Since she was a vivacious child with many friends, I was shocked and grieved when Joanna was ostracised by many of her peers at her new school. And her isolation continued not just for weeks or months, but for years, only improving with her transition to high school.
Often, in those early days, I had to drag Joanna out from under her bed to walk her to school. Leaving her in the school playground each day, alone, had felt like a betrayal of everything she expected of me as her mother. But in the end, there was little I could do to help.
Amidst the memory came the quiet revelation: the confidence and faith Joanna exhibited now, as a young woman, was a product of the pain she had experienced then. My very helplessness had forced her to depend on her Lord, and He’d proved Himself faithful to do far more than I could imagine. Her choice of a faith-based university was yet another evidence of the deep work that He had accomplished through that time of pain.
Now it was again time to watch and pray . . . and wait for new blessings He would bring forth. The blessings would unfold not only in Joanna’s life, but in our family life, too. In time, we would find a sense of completeness. We would become content, not as a smaller family, but as a long-distance family. Although we no longer shared the same residence, we would remain tied together by shared love and the sharing of new adventures.
I drew alongside a supermarket, and suddenly found myself making a mental list of groceries I needed to buy. Yes, it would be wonderful to hear from Joanna eventually, but the phone call could wait a little while. In fact, I decided, I’d wait until Joanna was ready to call me.
Easing the sense of loss
When your son or daughter leaves home, you and other members of your family may enter a time of grieving over your loved one’s absence. Be aware that each of you will mourn in different ways, and for differing lengths of time. Here are some ideas to help ease some of the pain during this time of transition:
- Start a family blog and encourage your long-distance son or daughter to do the same. Sharing photos, plus the day-to-day details of your lives, will help you stay connected to each other.
- Encourage siblings to make private, uninterrupted phone calls to their older brother or sister, especially if they’ve enjoyed a positive, mentoring relationship in the past.
- Earnestly ask the Lord if He’s making room in your hearts and lives for someone else. Are there students in your church you could invite to dinner regularly? Or you might choose to enrol in a more formal hospitality program run by a local college or university. You’d be surprised how much students miss a home-cooked meal! This may be time to consider opening your home to overseas students, becoming actively involved with agencies that help troubled youth, or even adopting a child.
Catherine Wilson is an associate editor at Focus on the Family Canada.
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