Take Time to Grieve After You Drop Your Kids at College

I remember four years ago August very clearly. The focus was on my oldest daughter Carly going off to college. She was only going an hour away to Monmouth University, but I still felt sad that she wouldn’t be living at home anymore. Don’t get me wrong; I also felt happy, proud and excited as well, but grief was the emotion that I was feeling the strongest.

I truly needed someone to listen to me but had trouble finding people who would just listen. Instead, when I did share about my feelings of grief, most people were not at all supportive and even looked at me strangely and said with a judgmental tone, “Aren’t you happy for her?”, “Isn’t her going to college a good thing?”, “I couldn’t wait til mine left.” I walked away from most of these interactions feeling unheard, frustrated, and feeling that that there was something wrong with me.  I guess I wasn’t supposed to be sad or at the very least I wasn’t supposed to talk about it.

After all there are commercials on TV showing parents pretending to be sad when the kids leave home and then jumping for joy and throwing parties. So what was wrong with me? Why couldn’t I only feel happy and thrilled at this wonderful opportunity for Carly? I realized during that summer and fall the importance of listening to others when they share their sadness over changes in their lives.

Grief is not only due to a death or divorce, but grief can come from any type of separation, ending or change in our lives. I found myself comparing my loss to other’s losses. As a grief counselor, I warn folks not to do this.

I shamed myself when I thought of all of those I know who have lost a child through death and knew that this loss could not even come close. Minimizing my loss though didn’t help. My grief felt like an ending. It was the beginning of the end of my experience of being the kind of mom as I had been for the past 17 years. It was the beginning of my children becoming independent and not needing me in the same way as they had before. I know that is what is supposed to happen and all about giving our children roots and wings, but knowing that didn’t make if feel any better.

I loved having all of my kids home and around. I don’t think that will ever change. I am one who wishes there could be a law that if family gets along then our siblings have to return to live in the same town so that cousins can live near each other. I know quite a few families in Springfield whose children are all in this town and the cousins even go to school together and grandparents are able to be very involved in their day-to-day lives. It is wonderful to see.

So I stopped telling others how I felt. I also vowed to become a better comforter of others when they shared with me any sadness or pain in their lives. I also wanted to teach others how to really listen to their friends, loved ones and co-workers when they shared anything emotional. I would remind them not to try to fix it or to be so quick to offer advice. Just listen and try to understand.

It isn’t hard to really listen, but it is a skill that we would all benefit from practicing. I wish that listening was taught in school. Our relationships would improve immensely.

Then I started to wonder about other parents. Weren’t they sad as well? How can we live with our children for 17, 18 or 19 years and then drop them off at college without us experiencing any feelings of grief?

I came up with many ideas. Maybe some didn’t really like being with their kids. Maybe some were denying their true feelings of sadness or just pretended they were “fine”. Maybe some were truly anxious to get back to their own lives that didn’t involve their children as much. Whatever it was, I wanted to find the other parents who felt like me. I was on a mission. I even ran a workshop in town four years ago called: They’re Excited About Going Away to College, But What About Us? About ten moms attended the workshop and it was great to share with each other.

Over the past four years I have spoken with many moms and dads who have shared their own grief with me about their children leaving home. Often with couples, it is one parent who expresses sadness more than the other. Some confide to me that it is their own spouse who “shamed them” about their feelings of grief, especially if the dad was grieving.

I recently had the pleasure of meeting a Navy Seal dad at a Long Island AAU basketball tournament, who shared with me that of all the experiences he has had in his life, including that of a Seal, nothing was as hard as dropping his oldest daughter off to college last year and saying goodbye. He told me how he cried the whole drive back. He has five children and is already grieving about his second child who is a high school senior who will be going away next year. I felt such a sense of validation from this kind father’s honest sharing. It helped me to feel better about my own feelings. Sometimes just talking to others who feel similarly to the way we feel can help enormously. We don’t feel so alone and we feel a bit more “normal”.

Anyway, if you are a parent who has a child going away to college and you feel sad, find people who will listen to you and show comfort. Allow yourself to feel the grief. Don’t talk yourself out of how you feel. Find support on Facebook as many parents I see lately doing. “Pack lots of tissues” one mom said in a post to another who shared that they were on their way to college.

It really does get easier, although I will confess that each year she packed up and left I cried. One time Carly said, “Mom, I am a senior at college. We have been through this many times. Why do you still cry when I leave?” “I don’t know”, I sniffled, “I just miss you.”

I guess it’s love or neurosis, but that is who I am. I know I will cry when my younger ones leave the nest as well, but at least they all know how I get, so it won’t be a surprise to them. Who knows maybe it makes them realize just how much they are loved. I hope so.

“Listening is a high art of loving. Ask yourself,” When is the last time I really listened to my child? My parent? My brother or sister? When someone is ready to share, three magic words amplify your connection, and they are, “Tell me more.” ~ Rev. Mary Manin Morrissey

Take care of yourself,


Grief counselor talks about sadness when kids leave for college
The author and family. (Lisa Athan)

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About Lisa Athan

Lisa B. Athan, MA, is the Founder and Executive Director of Grief Speaks, an organization dedicated to normalizing grief and loss in our society by means of delivering informative, cutting edge presentations, workshops and professional training sessions in the area of grief, loss and healthy coping in the lives of children, teens and adults
Lisa also is the co-creator of Camp Clover, a NJ bereavement day camp for children 7-15. There Lisa is the on site children's bereavement specialist and runs the sharing circles.  She also works with individuals, groups and families who are coping with a loss.  Lisa has an M.A. in Counseling and is a certified Grief Specialist.
You can find Lisa on Facebook or Twitter.

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