Empty nest, happy-sad, and back-to-school-shopping explained

Nest, empty

Nest, empty

“You wouldn’t believe the stuff people are taking to college,” my son said, gazing at his phone. “Like, rooms full of stuff. Where do they think they are gonna put all of it?!?”

I have to say I get it … on a whole other level. Here’s my theory: having your kid go away to college is a happy-sad. Kind of like bittersweet. You definitely want them to go, and you are feeling sad at the thought. More than sad. I have been grieving, for weeks now. At the same time as I am happy.

And – here’s the weird thing – that anticipatory grief has been really trying to turn into anxiety. Because worry we can work with. I can do something about worrying that he doesn’t have enough stuff, and she doesn’t have what she needs. I can’t do anything about the fact that having your kids grow up and move out is as much grief as it is good.

All I can do is Feel. That. Grief.

Compounded by the fact that there are other happy-sads in my life right now. All of that together means I have a really good cry brewing up. But that’s for later.
Right now, what I’m noticing is that pretty much all of our major life events have happy-sads in them.

Have a baby? The end of your carefree, child-free existence. Happy-sad. (Did you remember to grieve that, right before or right after the shower?)

Kids go off to school? The end of the close-knit family life which – if you were lucky – had at least some predictability in it. Most of the foibles were your own. Now, other people will be messing with your kid, and you. Happy-sad. (Did you grieve that one? Right before or right after the back-to-school shopping?)

Kids graduate from high school? Happy-sad. (How was the grieving on that one? Or was it subsumed in graduation parties and trying to keep them from dying in a car accident coming home from wherever?)

Kids off to college? Happy-sad. (Any time to grieve this one? Or was it just completing the shopping list Bed Bath and Beyond so conveniently mailed you?)

Kids/friends/parents getting married? Happy-sad. And … you’ve probably noticed the trend by now.

We have traded most of our rites of passage – meant to help us both grieve and celebrate and give that anxious energy something meaningful to do – for retail therapy.

Someone died? Well, here at least we know we are sad. And we grieve. But too often instead of finding the happy hiding here and there in the middle of the sad, we “celebrate the life” by buying things no one needs: fancy coffins, embalming, portraits, programs, etc.

We have become slices of life instead of the well-rounded, mixed-up lovers of life that we could be.

This time, I did not let my grief over the transitions around me turn into shopping occasions. Which had its downsides; my son arrived at college without laundry detergent. So, I do not win Mother of the Year. But then, I kind of fell out of the running for that one a while back.

Here’s what I did do. I soaked up the summer with him. I laughed with him and at him. I cried. (Probably have at least one more good cry in me.) I recognized that in the middle of my happy that both my kids are now in college, there was a big ole hurtin’ sad staring me in the face.

Other old hurtin’ sads came along for the ride. That’s how grief works. So few of us ever adequately grieve anything that most of us walk around with a storehouse of old, inadequately grieved thoughts, memories, and stories. This storehouse is primed and waiting to leap out at the first opportunity. (Hallmark commercial, anyone?)

And when that energy doesn’t get to leap out in wails and tears, guess what? It leaks out sideways: as anxiety or anger or irritation or plain old weariness. And if one feeling is hiding, there’s a good chance some other ones are, too. Pretty soon, we can’t figure out what we’re feeling at any given moment.

So what?

So … give yourself a break. This is a time of year when most of us have something that’s beginning, which means something’s ending, and you’ve got a happy-sad. Or maybe you just have something ending, and you’re just sad.

Do this for yourself: let yourself feel it. As much of it as you can. Tell a friend, or your lover. Or write down everything you are feeling. Or buy an hour of counseling, or a drink in the middle of the afternoon from a bartender with a good ear.

Or, call me and tell me about it.

But let yourself feel your grief … more of it, and more often. Grief means you had a good thing, and even if you’ve lost it, forever or temporarily, you don’t want to give short shrift to what you had when you had it.

Grief is part of your life. You don’t want to be missing part of your life. Trust me. Let these lows get on down, and your highs will be higher.

But even if all that happens is you open the floodgates of the passions of your life, the worst that can happen is you feel more … alive.

Grief does good work. Let it.

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