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It’s Elementary: The Grief of Graduation

Graduation Grief – MY grief over HER 5th grade promotion. Sobbing & unable to breathe, my awareness that soon enough I would have no children at home hit me like a ton of bricks!

My youngest child finished 5th grade this year. “My” last year of elementary school. A precious phase of life I’ll never have again.  This ending hit me like a ton of bricks. I felt like I couldn’t breathe. I repeatedly found myself sobbing as I drove down the road.  

Suddenly, a second round of kids became appealing. But being 45, divorced, and not actually wanting more kids made this a poor option for me. 

All of this emotion was made more confusing by the fact that I was genuinely excited about middle school. I was thrilled when my oldest son made that transition. I love watching the middle school kids walk down the street – hanging with their buds, wearing their cool clothes, doing their own thing. I love that I can cut in and out of the carpool line – an elementary school taboo. Unlike many a parent, I have never felt wary about middle school.

So why, then, all the tears? How was I simultaneously thrilled at my daughter’s promotion and totally beside myself? I felt a bit whacko.   

But that’s the funny thing about grief. We think we’re crazy because we don’t feel
exclusively one way or the other. At the exact moment we have one feeling, an alternative feeling pops up to make us second-guess the first feeling. Hence, this definition of grief: conflicting feelings about a change in a familiar pattern or behavior. 

A-ha…. I was having a totally legitimate grief response to 5th-grade promotion.  Grief that I would never have these years again, grief about the unknown future, grief that soon enough – as evidenced by the end of elementary school – I would have no kids at home. Ouch!! 

So whether your “babies” are going off to pre-school or leaving home for good, and you find yourself in a similar situation, know you are not alone. And know you are not crazy. Empty Nest is just one of 40 different types of loss we can experience in a lifetime.  Grief is not limited to death. 

Alas, what was I to do? The only thing I could do, which was to admit my grief and take action. I had to resolve it. So I buckled down, and in the hours before
the promotion ceremony, I worked the Grief Recovery process. Many tears were shed. But peace was made with the end of this phase of my life.

What a gift to both of us – my daughter and I both get to move freely into the future without being shackled by the sadness of the past. There is no better way to enjoy the remaining years that I have with her! 

I know I am not alone in this. What grief has hit you this graduation season? 

This post is contributed by a community member. The views expressed in this blog are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Patch Media Corporation. Everyone is welcome to submit a post to Patch. If you'd like to post a blog, go here to get started.

David July 18, 2012 at 06:46 PM
Well said (written), Anne, and timely. When my son was in the fourth grade, I went to pick him up from a skating party. I started to go in the building and asked if another dad wanted to go in with me. He said, "No, my kid is kind of at that age where it's not cool to be seen with your parents. He'd die if I hugged him." My heart skipped a beat. My son wasn't there yet, but I wondered. I imagined the other boy telling my son that it was "stupid to hug your dad" and how sad that would be...because I would have to clobber that kid. Still, I figured the day would come. Recently, I dropped him off for a youth group outing. I started to get out of the car to go in with him and, with a worried look he said, "Dad, where are you going?" I started to answer and it hit me. "You don't want me to come in with you, bud?" I could see him swallow hard and his lower eyelids started to swell and get a little damp. "I don't want to cry, Dad." I'm not opposed to crying, but I knew in that moment that he needed to feel good and not guilty about getting out of the car without me. "Are you okay, Dad?" So, I kind of lied. "Oh, yeah, buddy, I'm okay. Hey, you're growing, growing and that's all good. I'm fine." I kind of lied because I certainly felt pain, but I also know that healthy things grow. And I celebrate that. But I had a good cry when I pulled out of the parking lot.
Anne Keeton July 18, 2012 at 07:55 PM
Oh yes, David, I bet you did cry. I sure did those couple of weeks before my daughter's promotion. For no apparent reason, I'd burst into tears driving down the road. Thank you for sharing that. I knew I wasn't alone! Your story about your son totally exemplifies the conflicting feelings that come with grief. We are sad the day has arrived when our kids want and need to go without us; and, at the same time, we want to support and encourage their growing independence as they step out into the world. Kudos to you for recognizing & expressing both of these feelings as you did so that the sad part didn't get to mindlessly start steering the ship. I went to my neice's high school graduation recently and became intimately aware that I would soon be grieving my son leaving for college. I said, "UTTO, this is going to be a big one. I better act NOW to get this grief resolved!" Because, like you, I want most of all to relish the time we've got together AND be ready and excited when he next leaves me in the car as he steps out into the world. Thanks, David!
Michele Redmond July 18, 2012 at 11:13 PM
Anne, like you I have a daughter who just finished 5th grade and is embarking on the wonderful journey that is Middle School. At least, I hope and pray daily that it will be as positive experience for her as it was for me and for her older brother. While I worry a little about what the next 3 years will be for her, at least right now, I am not feeling the sting of sadness that elementary school is a thing of the past..for both of us. I will tell you, though, I am already borrowing from tomorrow's grief in that I am ALREADY prone to tears that my oldest will be out of on his own in a few years. He is only going into the 10th grade so I have several years of his still being a daily part of our household. But I am going to miss the heck out of him when he is gone, and I find myself wondering more often than I should this early in the game, how in the world did that big baby boy get to be a young adult so quickly? I don't know how those years flew by so quickly but I am determined to slow down how I take in the next 3 years and appreciate as much of it as I can. I am already preparing for a big cry fest when he is off to college. But it will help that I am so excited to have some one-on-one, girl time with my daughter. Thanks for your great piece about graduation grief. I am sharing it with the Moms of all my daughter's friends because I know they can relate.
Anne Keeton July 19, 2012 at 01:58 AM
Oh yes, Michele! Thank you for sharing. With my oldest starting his junior year, I can so relate to what you are saying about your son. I know that I literally have to start working on my grief about his imminent departure NOW. Although we don't want to compare and minimize our grief (a tendency for most of us), I’m sure that if middle school was any indication then” off-to-college” is going to kick me up one side of the field & down the other. In fact, last summer, for the first time ever, both of my kids were away for a week at the same time. And that gave me a heart aching glimpse into my not-so-distant future when both of them are gone. Ee-gads!! I am relieved to have "lived to tell" with Empty Nest Round #1 – End of Elementary School. I learned how broken my heart can feel and how it doesn’t have to stay broken. I now have confidence that with the right action I will get through Round #2 -First Born Off to College. I can tell you this: I will definitely not be waiting until the last day to do this work. I will start now. Starting now will enable me to do exactly what you said, "slow down how I take in the next 3 years and appreciate as much of it as I can." We don't want to let the fear and the tears rob us – or our kids- of the present or the future. Thanks again for sharing. I am right there with you!
Liz Bigler July 19, 2012 at 07:17 AM
This is a nice article. My youngest is just starting HIGH school, but I haven't really had these intense feelings. Nice to read about them, though, so if they do reach out and grab me someday, I'll know I'm not alone.
Sharon Swanepoel July 19, 2012 at 01:26 PM
You know, I didn't think of it until now, but this is so true. I went to my granddaughter's fifth-grade graduation this year and warned my daughter that middler-schoolers are a whole different ball game. But after reading this, I did think about what we're about to lose. Last night she asked when can she spend the night again and we made tentative plans for this weekend. She will say to me, "When can we spend some time together again Grandma - you know, some bonding time." I really do need to make time for that now - middle school will change all of that, I know. It will change back again later, but from now for another few years, that relationship definitely changes.
Anne Keeton July 19, 2012 at 02:55 PM
Thanks for sharing, Liz! You make a good point that every person, relationship and grief experience (or lack thereof) is totally unique. I definitely had nothing but excitement when my son started middle school. And there is no way to know in advance how I'll truly feel when he leaves for college. I had one friend who said she couldn't wait for her son to leave home because the last couple of years in high school had been dicey (my mother, no doubt, relates to this!). But it was my friend's husband who got hit hard with the grief. I know my daughter is already worrying about her brother leaving for school. So, being prepared for grief...ours or someone else's...now or later... is a smart. After all, it is the most profound human emotion and the one we know the least about. Keep on enjoying your lack of grief!!
Anne Keeton July 19, 2012 at 03:06 PM
Indeed, Sharon! Thanks for sharing from the grandmother perspective. Sounds like you know from experience that the different phases of life change the relationships. Thank you for the reminder to not take for granted when our kids or grandkids want to hang out with us. As you say, "make time for it NOW" because it doesn't last forever. My daughter was lounging about on the couch with me the other day, and I said "promise to still do this when you are 40?!" How I wish she would! The relationships change in so many ways - physically and emotionally. Not bad but different. So we definitely need to enjoy what we've got when we've got it! And let ourselves grieve what we've lost so that we don't shut our hearts down to what we do have. Thanks again, Sharon!

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