My baby just left for her first day of her last year of high school. I’ve been doing these first-last parenting moments for a long time—27 years and 1 month—to be exact, so today I am twingy with nostalgia. My brain shows me a snapshot of her first day of kindergarten. She climbs on the bus, bolstered by the presence of her neighborhood buddies, and I am proud of
myself her for not crying.
Of course, a couple minutes later, I hop in my car and race down the street, pulling into the parking lot just as the bus stops in front of the school. I hide between cars and wait until I see her skipping toward her classroom. Smiling. I heave a sigh of relief and drive the long mile back home.
I walk into the front door and lose it – there is Blankie, laying on the front bench, so lonely and discarded. I am in a puddle for the rest of the morning.
Every year I look forward to seeing friends’ first day of school posts on social media. I love that we document these important days to mark the passage of time. Marveling at how other people’s kids seem to have gotten older in the blink of an eye. Our school district asked senior parents to send in our kids’ first day pictures with the hashtag lastfirstday…. I love that too. The collective experience is validating and strengthens our communities.
First and last days are happy occasions. Reasons to celebrate. But they are also sad. In my office I hear lots of stories from Moms and Dads who wrestle with the bittersweet emotion that comes with sending kids off to faraway or unfamiliar places. We want them to launch and live their lives and see the world, but our hearts ache at the ripping apart. In one of my favorite books about grief, Walter Wangerin writes, “What causes the sadness—even in seemingly good times? Why, for example, does the mother of the bride, who truly desires best things for her daughter and who genuinely loves this son-in-law weep at the wedding as though it is a funeral?”
It’s a part of parenting for which I was largely unprepared—the love comingled with sadness. My oldest daughter was two weeks old, rocking in her swing, and I sobbed as I thought of how much time had already passed and how I loved her so much I thought my heart would burst. I didn’t expect it to hurt so much.
It’s a dialectic – two seemingly opposite ideas that are both true. When my kids were younger, I lamented about the passage of time. A much older friend reminded me of a family she knew whose profoundly disabled adult daughter would never leave the home. “You wouldn’t want it any other way,” she said. And of course she was right, our kids are supposed to launch, and we are certainly sad when they can’t (or won’t).
At the very same time, we must give ourselves (and others) space to grieve the loss of things that will never be the same. It can be exhausting to try and hold these two truths in balance. But time demands that we must.
How? Whether you are sending your baby off to kindergarten or a big kid off to college and beyond, here are some thoughts:
Lean in-Ugh. I hate using over-used phrases. But this one works so well. I have learned, through a lot of experience, to lean in to pain. There is much to be learned in the dark hours of grief and loss. When you feel sad, resist the urge to run from it. Embrace it. (And by the way, embrace doesn’t mean wallow.) Put words to your feelings. Feel all the feels. Connect your feelings to other experiences and the experiences of others. What is life trying to teach you? How can you grow from this moment?
Avoid comparing– On the first day of school your neighbor does the happy dance and you can’t leave the dark corner of your room. Don’t worry about what everyone else is doing. Don’t assume anything about their experiences. You feel what you feel, and for the most part, you don’t have a lot of control over your initial feelings. They just are. Over time you’ll sort things out, but for now, remember that everyone handles experiences differently and you are allowed to have your experience.
Create space for transition-Transitions are hard. Bad ones and good ones. It takes time to adjust to new routines and empty spaces at dining room tables. Give yourself some time to get used to things. Try not to judge yourself for not moving ahead faster. And if you do seem to be doing fine, don’t judge that either. The important thing is to keep moving forward, even if the pace is slow.
Reframe – The same mother who sends her child off to college and is devastated at the loss can also find joy in having more time to pursue volunteer work or a new hobby. The dad who reluctantly puts his child on an airplane for a semester overseas can enjoy getting to know that child differently through email correspondence. Reframing is about looking on the bright side and making lemonade out of lemons, and finding something—even if it’s a little something—to smile about.
And speaking of…practice gratitude. As a person who can lean toward the anxious and depressed side of things, I have to say that my number one tip for getting out of a funk is to be thankful. There is always something to be thankful for. If you’re not sure about that, stop what you’re doing and take a look around. What do you see? Your hands? Your puppy laying at your feet? The sun high in the sky or a big oak tree? Now try to imagine your life without it. Gratitude has a way of settling us down and helping us focus. Gratitude doesn’t take pain away, but it is a balm to soothe an aching soul.
In the past 27 years and 1 month I’ve sure had a lot of firsts and lasts with my four kids. I have said a lot of good-byes and cried a lot of tears and had lots of happy hellos with big open arms. I’ve spent many a sleepless night worried about whether they would fit in or have someone to eat lunch with or fearing they’d leave their backpack in an airport terminal. I’ve been stretched and grown in ways I didn’t know was possible. Today I’m feeling especially grateful for the privilege of holding both the joy and the sadness in my very full heart.
 Mourning into Dancing, by Walter Wangerin, 1992