Over the past few weeks I’ve watched friends stride through different rites of passage. Some sent their child to away-camp for the first time. Others released their youngest into the realm of college. I’ve not reached either pinnacle yet. But I recognize them to be fraught with disparate emotions–joy, expectation and hope, along with grief, worry and a sense of longing.

It’s a blow to the heart–especially a mother’s heart–to release a part of itself into the wilds of our world. I can only empathize, knowing that one day I, too, will reach the heights where my friends are.

I pray that I do.

Watching their stories unfold, I’m struck by something I call retroactive grief. It is in some way selfish. But it’s not uncommon among motherless daughters. One of the most beautiful things to see is a mother who weeps when her child charges out to shape and mold her life into something spectacular. The mother does so because she has great hope for the child. Because she has given her baby wings to fly and overcome and love and do important, brave things with the opportunities set before her.

I have found myself thinking about my own journey to college. My mom had been gone for three years by then. So my dad and my late brother drove me the distance from Cleveland to Chicago, unpacked my gear, helped me set up my room in Willard Residential Hall. When they left me a few days later, I stood sobbing on a street corner in Evanston. I don’t think my dad and my brother cried when they left me. But they did the best they could.

It was more than enough.

I called my brother within a few days, still crying, and told him I had decided to come home. There was no way I could hack life at Northwestern. Everyone was smarter, wealthier. Maybe, my brother said, but I deserved to be there just as much as the next freshman. He bribed me to stay, and offered me $50 if I made it through the week. Even if I landed back home, the cash would be mine. I agreed to the deal. And I ended up staying.

It was the best decision of my life.

So what about the retroactive grief? These past few days I’ve thought about how my mom wasn’t around to take me to college, or more importantly, to cry because she missed me. There is no replacement for a mother’s love. It is as unconditional as it gets when it comes to human beings. I recognize that not all children have strong bonds with their living mothers. And not all mothers will cry when they leave their child at camp or college. But my mom would’ve cried. It may have irritated or embarrassed me. But I would’ve loved having earthly proof of her love.

For motherless women, grief comes in an eternity of waves. It can even hit us when we think of a time well-past, and how our mothers weren’t around. It usually takes me by surprise. And it always presents a chance for gratitude. I’m grateful that I now get to experience the twists and turns of motherhood, the emotional jolts and the grand chaos of it all. Next week I’ll release my first-born, simply into the throes of second grade. I will cry, as I do every year. And I will revel in knowing that he’s growing strong wings, to carry him far and wide.

  1. What always comes to me are not my mother’s tears, but her lavish promises. I was the one crying as we drove to JFK for my flight to Paris after my junior year of college. She said, “And if you don’t like it, you can always come home.” I very well knew it would be cost prohibitive to fly home to Mommy. But I also knew she meant it. And I loved her for it all the more. Though that was forty years ago, and she and our home have been gone more than a decade, it cheers me to remember “You can always come home.”

    • What a moving story, Lori. Thank you for sharing it. You’re right–you can go home again. One of the best reminders of home is mom, and what a wonderful mom yours was here on earth and is now in heaven.

  2. Yes, retroactive grief. As we get older & grieve what we missed, what they missed. Truly is bittersweet & so needed. Bless you, my friend.

  3. Time came when your Mother wasn’t there. That’s life! Situations in life alternate between PERFECTION and IMPERFECTION for the purpose of keeping us poised and ready to recognize meaningful options for optimally moving on. Your Dad and Bro made your Mother very proud, I’m sure of that. Her soul had to be, and is, at peace.

    • Quite right, Connie–I often feel that my mom is so much at peace, I have very little sense of her ever having lived here on earth. It’s hard to explain well. She is where she always wanted to be, at home with the Lord.

  4. I recently heard a definition of the word “poignant” as when we experience happiness in sadness, and sadness in happiness. It is when past/present/future can meet in a moment. I believe the NPR speaker quoted Thorton Wilder’s “Our Town.” “EMILY: ‘Does anyone ever realize life while they live it…every, every minute?’ STAGE MANAGER: ‘No. Saints and poets maybe…they do some.’”

    I love to find poignancy in my own life, and am compelled to share it. Here’s proof Wilder’s words mean a lot to me: I actually paid for a therapy session to explore that very quotation.


    • Lori,

      Thanks for sharing that definition of poignant. It’s fitting, and it’ll be my definition going forward.

      I appreciate your anecdote about the therapy session to explore the quote. What a great idea! You are both a saint and a poet.

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