Good Grief.

Lizzie and ‘Winnie the Poodle’ Pre-College

Some universities, like the one that employs my wife(Washington University in Saint Louis, MO), offer generous tuition packages for employees’ children, provided that they can meet the admissions criteria.  Having paid stout elementary and high school tuitions, our policy has been that our kids can attend any university they want, provided that the tuition costs to my wife and me amount to no more than $0.00.  The implication:  “If you can get into the university where your mom works, you probably should.”  As they circled around the possibility of a debt-free undergrad experience, each child has extracted a promise from us.  As parents, we must behave as if they are 500 miles away, which has involved a stout set of parental rules:  (1) no expectations for non-standard home visits, (2) no parental drive-by’s,…and… (3) above all, no mom or dad drop-ins!

So I was surprised eight years ago, when my freshly minted undergrad, Annalise, called me out of the blue one September morning to see if I would be willing to drop off some groceries.  “Absolutely!”  I enthused as I cleared my schedule for a little college daughter-dad time.  Having tracked down her list of dry goods and perishables, I met her curb-side near her dorm.  As bright and sunny as Ned Flanders, I effused, “How’s ‘bout grabbing a bite of lunch?”  While gathering her bags, Annalise un-ironically chastised me, “Dad, whatever happened to treating me like I’m 500 miles from home?”  The holes in my tongue from biting it eventually healed.  

In his ground-breaking work, Paul Watzlawick (Change, 1974) distinguished between “first order change,” and “second order change.”  As applied to family systems, he described first order changes as those occurrences that leave the family system more or less the same.  Second order change describes those modifications that transform the family system into something brand new. When Annalise and then John Harry went away to school, Lisa and I wiped away a tear, and continued to behave like a family with school-aged children (e.g. packing lunches, driving to practices, attending school meetings and the like).  With the third and final child’s departure last week, I have been gradually coming to terms with second order change.  

Last week, I learned, that when it comes to the final child’s departure for college, the frame of her dorm room is a kind of liminal space that exercises transformative powers over those who traverse it.  As Lizzie intrepidly crossed over that threshold, I watched her morph into an emancipated woman complete with her own living quarters and occupation.  When Lisa and I crossed that doorsill in the other direction, what we had formerly called “a family,” would now and henceforward become a“family of origin,” for our children.  Lisa and I were now an “Empty Nest Couple.”  Voila!  Second order change!

Over the years, I have learned that a doctorate in counseling and family systems provides no immunity to the human condition.  As a counselor, I know that men in our culture tend to experience painful emotions like sadness or fear, by transforming them into irritability and anger.  Come to find out, I am no different.  The night after dropping Lizzie off, I found myself picking conflicts with my wife, and walking around in a kind of sour malaise.  It broke open the next morning when I was having my contemplative morning sit on the porch.  Lisa came out and hugged me.  Still in the seated position, I could feel her warm tears falling on my shoulders.  Her embrace provided a new liminal space, a different threshold that gave me access to the inchoate grief and mourning that I had been carrying around for the last twenty-four hours.  Lisa’s vulnerability allowed me to experience what had gone unnamed.  I was grieving the passage of our daughter and a sacred era of our lives.

What came into focus last week is something that any mom who has ever seen her first grader off to the bus-stop for the first time knows.  Grief is part and parcel of the human experience—and not just because of death or unwanted changes.  There is a kind of normal grieving built into the developmental life-cycle of individuals and families.  To some extent, every longed-for hello involves a goodbye of one kind or another.  I believe that this was (or should have been) the original intent of the bachelor party before it was transformed into its current puerile iteration.  It creates space to both savor and mourn the passing of an important era of life as it gives way to something beautiful and even miraculous.  

In my own quest for resilience, I am attempting to do for myself what Lisa did last week.  I want to make space for the normal experience of grief.  In the mornings and evenings before my contemplation I am trying to non-judgmentally become aware of what I am feeling.  Next, I am trying to localize that feeling in my body, and name it.  Some examples have included:  tightness in my stomach, a weight in my chest, rubber bands pulling in my neck.  By noticing the physical location of the feelings, I can attempt to soften the tight places, and release some of the heaviness through breathing, muscle relaxation, compassion, and loving presence to myself.  Given my religious tradition, I attempt to move this into prayer, and allow myself to be loved by a Presence that is always present within me.  A more secular, mindfulness approach might be to feel the connection with others who are similarly in some kind of pain, and to set an intention of compassion.

I find that by making space for the grief, it paradoxically gets smaller, and provides room for savoring what is creative and new in this precious time of our lives.  Where do you make time to sit still and create space to feel and compassionately name what is going on inside?  Over time, have you learned to savor what is good, true, beautiful, or loving in the midst of the normal grief of human living?  

One Reply to “Good Grief.”

  1. Tom, I think this in one of the best, if not THE best of your Sunday mornings. Your transparency makes this available to everyone’s experiences and helps us to grow in holiness. Thank you so much!

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