At First I Didn’t Cry, But My Empty Nest Gave Me Space To Grieve

I don’t remember climbing the stairs or turning on the hallway lights or bursting into her room. I know the phone call had come about an hour earlier and I was finally able to crawl out of bed on wobbly legs and make my way to her. Courtney, my youngest and the last still at home, was buried under a mountain of blankets, as the sun was yet to rise. The hallway light cast across her bed as I crawled in beside her, sobbing, and told my sixteen-year-old daughter the news that would change our lives forever.

Courtney’s dad, Kevin, my husband of nearly 19 years, had health problems for more than a decade. He was diagnosed with type 2 diabetes shortly after we were married. He suffered his first heart attack in 2004, and three more over the next 10 years. He had heart failure and neuropathy. Although he agreed to retire early in 2017, after a couple restless months at home, he decided he was well enough to return to work.

He was on extended business in Ohio when an infected wound landed him in a hospital, which quickly led to a finger amputation and further complications, and then discussions of hospice care. I had just bought airline tickets to go help bring him home. But he never made it.

grief-stricken teen
After my husband died, I tried to stay strong for my teens and not left them seen my grief.

My Husband of 19 Years Died

And so I told Courtney and we cried together for what seemed like hours before we finally crept downstairs and cuddled on the sofa. The rest of the day, really the next month or so, was quite the blur. In the first few hours and days there were friends gathered, phone calls, flights home for our sons, extended family who came to stay, others who dropped off meals and well wishes, and funeral arrangements. All the while I sat and held onto Courtney, afraid she would shatter if I let go.

Courtney, like her father, cried at Hallmark commercials. Both teared up for every floating pet goldfish or flattened frog or dead furry friend on the roadside. They both cried every single time they watched Phantom of the Opera on DVD or listened to Josh Groban in Kevin’s car. Courtney was Kevin’s baby and the baby of the family; although the third of our five adopted from foster care, she was the only one adopted as an infant and the only one to have known no other home but ours. Losing her dad devasted Courtney.

So, for the following year, I tried to stay strong for her. I sat beside her bed for endless nights, comforting her until she fell asleep from crying. I pulled her into my bed countless times when she woke me up shaking with sobs after a horrifying nightmare. When her anxiety soared, I took her to therapy. When driving overwhelmed her, I resumed chauffeuring her to school and activities.

When college application time rolled around and the process seemed insurmountable, I convinced her to wait a year. I took her to Disney World, and Colorado and Cancun. I bought her a ferret. And slowly, she mourned the loss of her father, the anxiety eased, the flow of tears slowed.

During that time, I thought I had grieved, too.

I did what I thought was grieving. I joined a weekly grief support program that I attended dutifully for six months. I spent time with friends, watched old family videos and frequently talked about Kevin. I attended church regularly. I took an antidepressant. When I felt I should be ready, I took off my wedding rings. And although I sometimes wept silently in the shower, I rarely cried in front of Courtney. Mostly, I built a dam, a huge, strong wall to keep Courtney and me safe.

After My Youngest Left for College

The following year, when Courtney left for college several states away, I returned from move-in weekend and stepped inside our home. I walked through slowly, stopping to pause as one might before a Monet in a museum. The kitchen, where we ate dinner around the table every night, the walls still stained from a years-ago milk, peas and potatoes fight.

The pantry door marked by heads held still and sharpies ticking away the time. A hallway door poorly patched after bearing the fist of an angry teen. The laundry room, which will never again be overrun with Boy Scout uniforms, soccer jerseys, dance leotards, and scores of mismatched socks.

The five bedrooms echoed with squeals and bedtime giggles. In the guest room that was once Derek’s, I could hear his saxophone when I closed my eyes. And then there was the gym that was once Arielle’s room, where we battled over bedtimes, and missing the bus. Zach’s room still smelled a bit like teen boy; though I no longer wish it didn’t. And Courtney’s room was adorned with Play Bills, a Broadway mural, and a treasured photo of Kevin in a tux and Courtney in a party dress, headed to a father-daughter dance when she was five.

I walked back downstairs and stood in the entry. The house was empty. And so was I. A single tear rolled and stopped atop my cheek—the first break in the dam.

I wandered into my bedroom and picked up a picture from my bedside table: Me and my husband on our wedding day. We had moved from Detroit to Hawaii the year before and I always teased him that had his work transferred him to Buffalo rather than Honolulu, I may not have followed. We married while on a cruise in Alaska. I had my wedding dress shipped, along with a bouquet of tropical flowers.

Kevin wore a tux and a traditional Hawaiian maile lei. We stood on a glacier, accessible only by helicopter, and exchanged vows with just a few family members in attendance. The joy on our faces captured in that moment sat smashed behind the picture frame glass. “Well, what are we going to do now?” I shouted. As I realized the depth of my aloneness in the world, the dam burst, and my knees buckled as the grief washed over me.

Moving Through My Grief, Finally

I have since pulled myself up off that floor. And I have moved forward. Courtney is thriving in college and I owe it to her—no, I owe it to myself—to heal. So, I carve out time for grief and selfcare. I journal. I’ve joined a women’s group where I can share my experience. I take long walks and listen to old phone messages just to hear his voice. I keep his name atop my phone favorites, his icon on our family Netflix account. I went back to wearing my wedding ring when I want to feel close.

And sometimes I tag him on Facebook, just in case he’s there. His ashes sit in a box on my coffee table and I am planning to soon keep a long-ago promise to return to Hawaii and bury his ashes near Ala Moana Beach, where he proposed.

At last, I am moving through my grief, for me.

You Might Also Want to Read: 

As a Mom, I Will Always Need to Be Needed

What This Mom Would Like to See More Of In Her Teens 

Kate Robertson lives in Texas and is mom to five mostly grown children. She finds herself caretaker of the empty nest, keeper of the stuff, tender of the poodle, parrot, and ferret, and adviser to the uninterested. A former newspaper reporter and magazine editor, she now edits college application essays and you can follow her blog, Alone in the Nest: Life After the Last One Leaves, or find her on Facebook or Twitter.

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