It was one of those moments that I could have easily pushed aside and continued on through my evening wrapped in the spiderweb of distraction. It was a moment so small that I almost missed the worlds of beauty and pain that lived within it, like a monarch butterfly floating past and I, caught in the clouds in my head, fail to recognize the utter miracle of this creature’s existence.
But that night, I paused long enough to witness the moment and allow it to stop me in my tracks, and when I did, I recognized it as one of those moments that pierces the soul with its intersection of loss and love, when time both stops and becomes amplified, as if someone dropped a solution in my heart that caused it to dilate from the magnitude of the vulnerability of loving: of what is required to take the risk of love every single day.
I was lying next to my younger son, newly ten years old, snuggling in for our nightly bedtime ritual. We were talking about our day up in the Rocky Mountains, and something arose about his older brother, Everest, who would turn fifteen in a few months. Asher asked, “How many years until Everest is an adult?”
“Almost three,” I answered.
“Three years? In three years Everest will be an adult?” Asher was amazed.
And there was the moment.
The drop in my stomach. The prick of tears in my eyes. In three years, my firstborn will be an adult. In a flash, my heart ached with the memories of pushing Everest in a stroller and regularly being stopped on the street by women in their late forties, where I am now, to tell me, “Appreciate every moment. It goes by so quickly.” We hear this constantly as new mothers, and in the stress of those early years when endless night-wakings and meltdowns and the unattainable goal of regular naps elongates the days, it seems impossible that time will move quickly. But it does.
I remembered when Everest was a few days old and I was completely overwhelmed by the demands and shock of new motherhood. I held him on my lap in our bed, surrounded by crumpled sheets, my tank top stained with milk, sleep-deprived and miserable, and thought, “At least it’s only eighteen years.” I felt a pang of guilt when I heard the thought – after all I had just become a mother and I was already thinking about sending him away – but because I was deeply steeped in the framework of transitions I knew that the thought stemmed from an escape-hatch fantasy that was trying to lift me out of the overwhelm and misery of postpartum shock, when it felt like my entire identity as I had known it until that point in my life had been devoured by the fissure caused by the earthquake of my son’s birth. Falling through the groundlessness of the liminal zone, my mind grabbed onto the first foothold it could find: that this misery would be finite.
But as soon as shock gave way to falling in love, I laughed at myself, and from that day forward the thought of him leaving one day filled me only with sadness. But it was so far away – eighteen years, twelve years, eight years. Until it wasn’t. Until the vista that receded far into the horizon was within view, which is what happened that night. I could touch the moment of his leaving, and the awareness of it, when I let it in, submerged me in grief.
When the awareness arises now, I think about my neighbor, whose eighteen-year old son will be leaving for college in the fall. I’ve been watching her closely, looking for clues about how a mother navigates this transition. Just like I learned how to use the Ergo sling from watching other mothers, so I will learn how to walk through this soul-quaking transition by looking to my community. Recently, I asked her how she’s feeling about the impending departure and she said, “I cry every morning. The part that makes me so sad is knowing that I won’t be able to touch him. Even at this age, he still puts his head into my lap and hugs me every day. The other day I was looking at pine cones that my mother sent and I thought about how next winter, when we’re getting ready for Christmas, it will just be the three of us. S won’t be here. And I wept.”
This is how we grieve: allowing the ache to penetrate until the tears fall down the slopes of our cheeks and we catch them in our cupped hands and find that the crying rinses the heart clear… for the moment. Grieve. Rinse. Repeat. Grieve. Rinse. Repeat.
What I’ve learned over the years is that when I don’t breathe fully into the moments of pain and allow myself to surrender into the waters of grief, the normal and inescapable human sadness that accompanies loving and living will morph into anxiety. Hours later I will find myself ruminating about one of my mind’s favorite go-to stories about our house or health, and if I can catch the rumination before it spirals into hamster-wheel hell and remember that it’s a messenger, I can track it back to the original source, which is that one moment of raw pain.
We probably experience a dozen of these micro-moments in a day – moments when the searing pain and breathless beauty of our existence as humans collide – but they’re often eclipsed by the increasingly fast pace of our lives keeps us in near-perpetual distraction. Or perhaps there is some of part of our hearts that intentionally misses them because to take them in without a way to move them along the channels of emotion feels unbearable. It’s like this quote from Richard Zimler’s “Guardian of the Dawn” that a blog reader recently passed along:
“As we stared at each other, the intimacy between us became too deep – as if we might both fall inside and never find our way out. It’s odd how life must be lived on the surface of things. Otherwise, we would grow too cognizant of the little farewells and deaths we live every day.”
I understand this sentiment completely. But what if we’re not meant to live on the surface of things? Or what if we’re evolving our emotional capacity to learn how to tolerate and even grow through the “little farewells and deaths we live every day”? And what if, by recognizing and allowing ourselves to feel these smaller moments of loss as they arise, we’re better able to manage the bigger moments of loss; when we feel the aches that bubble up in the months or years prior to the final day instead of avoiding them we’re actually preparing ourselves for the moment of transition. The moment when I look at my grown son in the eyes and hug him before he crosses over the threshold of adulthood that will open both of us to the next stage of life: him as an adult in the world, and me as a mother at home with one more child who will, in a few short years, cross the threshold as well, when the cycle of grief and loss and renewal will start all over again.
This is such a beautiful piece of writing, thank you. I wish the grief was there ready and waiting for me to embrace it – the ache in the throat and tears behind the eyes I felt so much in my childhood and teens – but I find it impossible most of the time to even feel it. It’s not that I feel the pain and push it away. I already feel very in-tune with my body, so I’m not sure what to do. I still have some processing to do as my mind is still very busy with thoughts.
The place to start is to ask what scares you about feeling emotional pain. What are the beliefs you carry about pain? The blank feeling is resistance, which is code for fear.
The question you ask: “What are the beliefs you carry about pain?” went right to my heart. My answer:
Pain is to be avoided at all costs.
Pain serves no purpose but to confuse, derail and punish me.
Pain is way too much, too violent, to be worked with; I cannot sit down with pain.
There is no way to be with pain.
Pain is bad; it’s wrong; it’s an aberration of life.
You’re not alone with these beliefs about pain, Elizabeth. If you were to respond to some of them with a wise and loving part of yourself, what might you say?
So beautiful. Possibly my favourite you’ve ever written – this captured the experience of a sensitive life perfectly. Thank you!
I’m so glad it resonated, Rachael. 🙂
❤️❤️❤️ My babies are barely 7 months old and I already grieve them growing up. Each night when I put them down for sleep, I think to myself how when they wake up, they’ll be a little bit older already.
Being a mother is the greatest gift in life but it’s the biggest burden to bear as well. The love we feel for our children is so big, it can hurt!!
Yes, that’s exactly right: we love so much it hurts! And the only way through is to keep grieving those moments of loss so we can keep the pathways to joy wide open.
wow! such an incredible piece of visual prose. not having 2-legged kids of my own, i was transported to a place of deep empathy on a visceral level. this story paralleled some of my own experiences around grief/loss and served as a gentle reminder of the significance of being present as well as the impermanence of all things…
thank you for your transparency, truth and heartfelt wisdom and for shining a bright light onto the wounds we all feel.
much love & light.
Thank you, dear Sasha. And, you know, the love and fear of loss we have for our four-legged babies is the same experience. xoxo
Thank you for this Sheryl. I have found your website and work as I am struggling from anxiety around then forthcoming losses of sharing my one year old son as my marriage has broken down. It’s such a sad time of transition as the relationship ends, I have to move and find a new home and we try and agree on contact arrangements for our son which inevitably will involve me being separated from him. This has all come as such a shock I never imagined i would find myself here and as you would understand the hardest pain of my childhood and adult life has been loss and separation and it looks like I am being asked to find peace with that pain in order to get through the next 18 years of repeated separations and help my son feel reassured he’s safe and loved so that any fear of the pain isn’t transferred to him. I am desperate to find a way to ensure he suffers as little as possible in what is going to be such a sub optimal and potentially unsettling way of travelling through childhood… Emmeline, UK
Dear Emmeline: I’m so sorry to hear about the loss and transition you’re going through. We try so hard to protect our kids from pain, and yet it’s an inevitable part of life one way or another. Aha Parenting is my favorite resource for all parenting issues. While the son in this article is older, there might be some helpful pieces:
Thank you Sheryl, this really resonates with how I feel as a sensitive person. I have always felt deep sadness around goodbyes, even if I know I’ll be seeing the person again soon! It always feels like forever to me.
As I approach my wedding later this year, I feel sadness welling up in my psyche all the time and worry a bit about being an emotional mess as I walk down the aisle! I’m hoping that by grieving the transition in the lead-up, I will feel a bit less overwhelmed on the day. Are there any other ways in which you might suggest preparing for this?
The key is grieving along the way, which is exactly what you’re doing. It might be helpful to read my book, The Conscious Bride, as it articulates the grief intrinsic to this transition, and what we can articulate has an easier time moving through us.
Thank you Sheryl, I will get a copy of The Conscious Bride. X
I’m so glad I read this one Sheryl. I haven’t read your posts for a little while (mainly because I got so much out of them I no longer really suffer from the anxiety around my relationship). But as I am all too aware, it’s a life of ebs, flows, transitions and cycles and I do love your writing. This morning I’ve just sat down with tea and toast on my terrace, appreciating life and I thought I’d dip into this post from your email. I was touched to see you had included my suggestion/recommendation of Richard Zimler’s quotation from my recent post. There really is a sense of interconnectedness in this world and I had hoped it would resonate with you. Wishing you all the happy and cherished moments in the time before your son moves into adulthood and beyond. As my twin sister moves into her second trimester, I’ll be sure to share this with her. LCG
Ah, so good to see you here, and thank you for sending that quote ;). It resonated deeply. xo
Thank you so much for this. I recently bought a one-way flight overseas for the end of the year. Although it is something I have wanted to do for years, I now find myself rigid with fear, scrambling back to all that I was happy to leave behind and wanting to nest in it, even though it was boring me and causing me pain before. But oh, to miss out on what is on the other side… I see clearly now that I will have to breathe into the pain of leaving if I am to fully feel the joy of the spreading my wings.
Yes, yes, beautifully said: “I see clearly now that I will have to breathe into the pain of leaving if I am to fully feel the joy of the spreading my wings.” There’s your own wisdom, guiding you onward.
This is so beautiful. I’ve been blessed with two beautiful daughters that I sadly and joyfully watch transition into amazing adults. For 6 years now, after retiring from my job, I was so blessed to be able to be caregiver for my 2 grandchildren. What fun we’ve had! Next fall they’ll be in fulltime school and preschool. I’m so sad to see this time end! Thank you for this piece. It touched me deeply.
Thank you, Deborah. Life seems to be a perpetual cycle of endings and beginnings, grieving and rejoicing. When we can meet and see those places fully without resistance, in some inexplicable way it all becomes joyful and it’s all okay.
I’m reading this post as I lie next to my 7 month old, first born son and let each word soak through me to remind me of how fast it will pass. I will now forgive myself for the cosleeping I’ve been doing and put away the blogs about how to encourage independent sleep. It will all pass before I know it.
Forgive yourself for co-sleeping with a 7 month old? Goodness, yes! We co-slept WAAAAAAY past that, as most cultures do. Enjoy every minute of closeness and BAH to our culture that forces independence much too early.
I so needed to hear this! I needed hear how to go through these painful times. I needed to know that it is a greater part of evolving emotionally. I so much want to be able to live life more fully and not pass over these painful moments, storing them up unknowingly as little anxiety bombs waiting to explode and wreak havoc. I wholeheartedly agree that this emotional processing is a preparation that supports us through these big transitional moments. Typically, I’ve prepared by worrying and obsessing which has never served me. This “Grieve. Rinse. Repeat.”, process…Ahh now this is it!, This is what I’ve been missing, a way to prepare for life as it’s happening. I am so grateful you’re on this journey and that you are sharing your life with us in this way. You have shown me many times through your artful articulate expression and wide open heart, how to live life in a rich and fulling way. Such a spiritual teacher you are to me. Your words always reach right into the center of my heart and resonate in the marrow of my being. Thank you, thank you, thank you!
Thank you for this beautiful expression of gratitude! It has left my whole soul smiling, and I’m honored that my words are helping guide you along these paths of life.
This was so beautiful. I especially love the last bit about feeling the smaller moments of loss as they happen to prepare ourselves for the inevitable transition. Such sage advice to embrace our high emotions in the moment, rather than suppress or feel embarrassed about it. I find a good cry very healing. Music that matches my feelings helps me release the tears. Even if I don’t want to face my grief it comes out anyway in the worst timing possible! I believe our body is very wise and it prepares us early for big changes ahead.
Wisely said, Katers. Thank you for sharing here. xo
Thank you for this post, it resonated with me strongly! <3 A while ago I read a poem about this topic. The words escape me but the main idea was that each time your little person does the little things they do, it could be the last time. Like one day they will call you "mummy", and then all of a sudden it becomes "mum" and it dawns on you that the last time of hearing them say "mummy" has been and gone. So hard for the sensitive soul.
Yes, and the only sane response is to grieve and orient toward gratitude :).
Thank you for this – just the medicine I needed today, though I’m reading it from a child’s perspective. I spent the whole day alone with my mother yesterday, which is rare. I felt grief surface during the day and it overwhelmed me after we said goodbye. I think it IS those farewells and deaths – some part of me is still grieving the loss of the perfect childhood and perfect mother which I, of course, didn’t have, but somewhere deep inside still am clinging to the longing for.
It shows up in grieving that our summer day together wasn’t perfect, that our relationship STILL isn’t perfect, she doesn’t perfectly GET me and I don’t perfectly respond to her. It hurts so much more in our relationship than in others. To me that’s the essence of growing up – letting go (in layers) of the dream of and longing for being perfectly parented. As I hope to become a parent myself soon, it’s disappointing to realize my children will go through the same grief and growth. Hopefully I will be able to give them the tools to handle the day-to-day grief (tools I’m learning as an adult) so they can embrace life as it comes to them.
This puts into words something I’ve always experienced but rarely hear people talk about. I think of it as having epiphanies throughout the day. I’ve struggled with depression and anxiety in recent years and I don’t feel these daily epiphanies so much anymore or I run from them. Reading this is a good reminder. I also relate to the empty nest grief and anticipation of empty nest grief. My oldest son is 25 and when he left home at 18 I cried daily, several times a day, to be exact. Since then he has moved back in and out (currently he’s living at home again) and the result has been conflicting emotions! I miss him when he’s gone but when he moves back in he often drives me crazy. Such a roller coaster. My youngest is 13 and I can’t bear the thought of him moving out and I’m in denial that it will happen. Seems as if it should be easier to anticipate having gone through this once but that is not the case. Then I have this other weird experience where I often almost start to cry when I imagine growing old and dying and “leaving” my sons. The emotions are almost too much to bear.
Thank you for sharing your experience. I hope you can turn toward the daily epiphanies and allow the tears to come through. They are medicine. Nothing you’re describing is weird at all; all completely normal in the heart and mind of the sensitives.
This post has triggered so much grief in me. The vulnerability of life sometimes feels so unbearably painful. I recently indulged in social media curiosity about my ex (which I know I shouldn’t have done but alas, I did), and I found out she might be seeing someone new. My mind has been telling me so many stories about it. I’ve been feeling angry: my mind tells me that “in just a couple of months, she changed me” or “what happened to “so much love she felt for me”? I’ve been ruminating all day about this, having felt angry at first, but then feeling sadness arrive as I let grief show up.
When I feel super stuck, I find one of your posts to help me open up to the grief I can’t seem to feel by myself. I feel particularly touched when you say “(…) Or perhaps there is some of part of our hearts that intentionally misses them because to take them in without a way to move them along the channels of emotion feels unbearable.” My question is: what is a way of moving pain along the channels of emotion so that it doesn’t get stuck? I’ve journaled several times today as thoughts arise, but I feel I dont exactly know how to let it go through me. Any suggestions?
Pain has its own timetable, so while you may not feel that it’s moving along in the moment, if you’re attending to it with compassion, which you clearly are, it will move along when it’s ready.