How to Embrace the Grief and Joy in the Passage of Time

by | Jul 30, 2023 | Transitions - General | 44 comments

A theme has emerged these past two weeks in my groups, individual sessions, and of course, in my own life: the passage of time. With three weeks left until Everest leaves for college, the heartache and joy embedded in the passage of time is acute in our household.

On the one hand I ask: How? How did he grow from the baby in my lap to a young man of almost 19? How is it that I started writing this blog when we was six years old, and even posted about the passage of time back then?

And on the other hand I say: Of course. Everything is unfolding as it’s meant to unfold.

And, always: Thank you. Thank you for this human that I have been so blessed to raise.

Why Highly Sensitive People are Attuned to the Passage of Time

Highly sensitive people are highly attuned to the passage of time. When my clients talk about it, they highlight these areas:

  • Longing for childhood

  • Worry about parents aging & dying

  • Feeling heartache with seasonal changes

  • Feeling emptiness as afternoon light fades into night

  • Nostalgia for the past

  • Struggling with birthdays

  • A fear of getting older

  • An acute awareness of children growing up

Why are we so tuned in to the passage of time? Because we’re attuned to loss. And because time is a continual cycle of loss and renewal, we feel the passage of time daily in the deepest places of our hearts.

Because we weren’t guided along the passageways of grief in early years, we likely learned to shut down to our pain or run to the safety of our heads to find protection in the labyrinthian distraction of anxiety and intrusive thoughts. As such, grief becomes log-jammed and high sensitivity can feel like a burden.

But when we learn to open our hearts and feel the grief that is a daily part of life – learning how to follow its wisdom and channel it into tears or breath or poetry or dance – we also learn that being so deeply connected to loss means we’re connected to love. For loss and love live in the same pocket of the heart.

In essence, we’re more tapped into grief which means – if we can keep our hearts open – we’re also more available to joy.

Life, then, becomes more precious in the best sense of that word. Dancing between loss and love, we discover what it is to be fully alive.

How Do I Grieve?

How do I grieve? Let me count the ways…

I breathe into the ache in my chest. Sometimes tears prick my eyes. Sometimes they don’t. Sometimes I weep and wail to where it feels like the pain will break me open. Sometimes I’m quiet.

Sometimes the grief is heavy, like a raincloud that will not release its tears. At these time I climb the stairs and lie down on my bed and stare out the windows. This is more of a melancholy grieving. The tears usually come eventually, but until they do I’m left with the heaviness of unshed rain. I try to make room for this, too. The unromantic grief. The uncreative grief. The grief that does not feel alive.

I write. A lot. A few days ago, Everest and I were sitting in the living room and I couldn’t stop staring at him. Later I wrote:

You’re sitting in the chair in the corner of sunny room and I’m staring at you, trying to memorize you, trying to fix you into this spot because I know I won’t be seeing you sit there once you leave for college. You’ll be back, I know, but it won’t be the same. Alongside the stool at the kitchen island, that chair in the corner is one of your spots.

I don’t want you to go. I want you to go because it’s what’s right and good, but I don’t want you to go. When I think about you leaving I get a pit in my stomach – the same feeling I used to get when I had separation anxiety as a kid and teen. The longing for home. And it occurs to me that this is like homesickness in reverse: if you’re a piece of my home, and you’re leaving, then I will long for the piece of home that lives in you.

For nearly 19 years I have seen you every single day. In recent years when you’ve traveled with school or Navy boot camp, you would be gone for two or three weeks at a time, but it was always finite and I knew you would be back within a reasonable amount of time. This is different. You’ll be gone for months at a time. I don’t like it. I don’t want it.

In making space for the not liking and not wanting, in opening to grief in all its forms, acceptance arrives. It’s not linear and it’s not neat. In fact, it’s very messy. Snotty messy. Heartache messy. A terrible, beautiful dance between resistance and acceptance, between grief and joy, between loss and love.

The Dance of Grief and Gratitude

There is a dance between grief and gratitude which I understand more deeply  now. I’m standing at the creek and I see Everest and Asher as young boys, playing in the water, making up games and words and worlds together. A pang of grief, missing those days, the nostalgia of memory.

But then… also… such gratitude for these memories. Gratitude for these moments. Gratitude that my boys played at the creek as part of their childhood. I’m so grateful that I get to be their mother. I’m so grateful that we homeschooled all those years and that these trees, these living waters, this land were some of their teachers.

Grief and gratitude.

When the memories arrive, I breathe into both: heart-ache and heart-open – twin petals on the flower of love – and as I do I can feel my capacity for love expanding.

From Grief and Emptiness Come Joy: The Three Stages of Transitions

The three stages of transitions that I’ve studied and taught for decades also land more deeply:

Separation – Liminal – Renewal

Grief – Emptiness – Joy

I have felt so much grief these past several months. Then the emptiness and disorientation of the liminal stage arrived as I started to feel the empty place that Everest will leave behind when he goes to college and the recognition that the task of raising this human is complete. I have poured myself into him since the moment of conception – over 19 years – and now my job is done. We have raised him to adulthood and he no longer needs us in the same way.

He’s an adult. He works. He has a checking account. He goes to the bank and the dentist. He takes good care of his body. He knows how to communicate in relationships. He took an Oath of Office to serve our country. He’s heading to college. He is an adult.

There is a certain way that he will always need us, just as I need my husband and my friends, but he no longer needs us to parent him. He doesn’t want our advice; he wants our trust.

My job is done. 

The grief-emptiness-joy of that sentence surges through my entire being.

What new flowers will grow in our garden while Everest is at college?

How will the mothering energy that I’ve poured into him be re-channeled?

In what ways will Asher blossom and shine without Everest in his daily life?

Holding my grief and emptiness close, I make a way for excitement. A new stage is upon us. What will it bring?! I’m curious to find out.

Saying Goodbye

In a few weeks, the four of us will board a plane for Florida. A few days later, three of us will return home. I don’t know how we’ll say goodbye, but we will.

Then he’ll be back. And then he’ll leave. Then he’ll be back. And so it goes. From babyhood to adulthood. we love them with our entire hearts and hold the tether as they walk further and further into the world, always knowing that their place of home that lives in the cord of love will never, ever break.

For an in-depth conversation about The Passage of Time, please see our Gathering Gold episode on this topic that we recorded in February 2022.

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44 Comments

  1. Sheryl,

    To say that this email is timely would not do it justice. Oh my, I journaled about this exact topic this morning and again this afternoon as I had more grief to hold and release. My daughter is 4.5 months old and last night we moved her into her room. I cried and cried some more. Everyone said that going back to work was hard, but moving her out of our room was something I was unprepared for. My anxiety and intrusive thoughts were loud this week and until we made the transition from a bassinet in our room to her crib in her own room, I couldn’t really land on why. But, then I realized it was grief. She’s been in our room every night for the past 139 days, this little family of three. And moving her I felt the shift, the change, the passage of time so acutely it overwhelmed and spilled out in tears. I saw her moving out for college and felt like I couldn’t breathe. As I journaled I felt more at peace. She’s ready for her crib. Our marriage is ready for some personal space back. And I journaled about what would bloom in the after of transition. And I thought of you and transitions and how I felt empty, but knew nothing was wrong. Thank you for giving me these tools so I can move more gracefully through motherhood and let go when it is needed. I can’t imagine what you must be feeling at times. I miss her and she’s only down the hall now. Sending you virtual hugs! As always, thank you for your work. You have given me so much confidence as a new mom to trust myself and hold myself oh so tenderly!

    Reply
  2. Thanks Sheryl for this post. So beautifully written as always, and relatable! My son turned 2 last month and I see him changing every day, becoming more independent and even saying things like “Don’t look at me Mum” when he wants space or preferring other people over me, when it doesn’t feel like too long ago I was the only one he wanted close. Parenting has so much grief (and joy too like you said), but the grief is so hard sometimes!

    Reply
    • I’m realizing now – as I look back over the years – that it’s the same grief when they’re 2 as it is when they’re 18, and the more we allow ourselves to feel the grief at each step and stage along the way the more we can tolerate the bigger transitions and eventually arrive at acceptance. Sending hugs!

      Reply
      • Definitely needed this. Makes me feel less alone as a super feeler/highly sensitive person. My 5 YO daughter is starting kindergarten in 2 weeks. My God this feels so big, though I know there will be bigger transitions. She’s my one and only, and will be. So I feel the temporary nature of each milestone even more acutely it seems. I do already see my dance of sadness and gratitude as she becomes more independent in so many ways every day. I want her to be close to me emotionally and geographically as long as I live but I know I can’t hold her to that, as she is her own person; a soul independent. But I worry. All I know for sure is I need to enjoy the moments and give her all the love, care, and respect as an individual and maybe she will, as you describes it, keep wanting to come home again and again in my heart and in my home.

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        • Beautiful, Nadia. Sending you hugs as you navigate this next transition. It’s a BIG one!

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  3. this is so so timely. i balled my eyes out tonight as i left my 3.5 year old with my husbands family at a lake house. watching him be so independent, wanting to play with his cousins and not needing me 24/7 was something i was not familiar with. as much as i complain and wish i can have “alone time,” i also want him to need me. as i drove off so he could enjoy himself with his family (other than me), i cried and wondered- how will i ever be able to let go? this is 3 nights away. what’s going to happen when college comes around? or marriage? sending you so much love in this transition. i’m sure it’s not easy.

    Reply
    • Krista: When you grieve the smaller moments of letting go, the big ones are manageable. Not easy, but manageable. Sending you big hugs!

      Reply
  4. Thank you for sharing this Sheryl, I connected with it so deeply. “My job is done” hit right in the heart. What a perfect way to summarize the grief, emptiness, loneliness and joy of parenting. My sons are 8 and 6 and the passage of time feels especially heavy at the moment as we prepare to move. I am forever grateful for your work, words and wisdom. xoxo

    Reply
    • This post is exactly what I needed to read to know that I am absolutely not alone in this grief. My kids go back to school in three weeks and I feel like part of me is being ripped out. No one in my regular life seems to understand the loss I’m feeling and why I keep crying each day.

      I have often felt that I connected deeper to my children than other parents, but your words have shown me that I’m just more attuned to that connection than others, so I feel it on a stronger level. I appreciate your writing so much.

      Reply
  5. Definitely needed this. Makes me feel less alone as a super feeler/highly sensitive person. My 5 YO daughter is starting kindergarten in 2 weeks. My God this feels so big, though I know there will be bigger transitions. She’s my one and only, and will be. So I feel the temporary nature of each milestone even more acutely it seems. I do already see my dance of sadness and gratitude as she becomes more independent in so many ways every day. I want her to be close to me emotionally and geographically as long as I live but I know I can’t hold her to that, as she is her own person; a soul independent. But I worry. All I know for sure is I need to enjoy the moments and give her all the love, care, and respect as an individual and maybe she will, as you describes it, keep wanting to come home again and again in my heart and in my home.

    Reply
    • I scrolled down to write an almost exactly same comment. My one-and-only daughter starts kinder in two weeks as well and I’m grieving every day. Knowing that she’s my solo baby, every milestone is both a first and last, and it’s really hard on my sensitive soul. I discover so much with her, and then it’s over so quickly. This post, and this comment, was just what I needed. Thank you.

      Reply
      • Nadia and Becks: Sending you both big hugs as you navigate this transition. If you would like to connect with each other, let me know and I’ll put you in touch. Sometimes the best balm for the grief/gratitude dance is other mothers going through the same thing.

        Reply
  6. Beautiful and right on schedule for tisha b’av and tu b’av this/last week.

    Reply
    • Yes! From grief to joy; brokenness to wholeness; loss and love. ✡️🙏🏽🌗

      Reply
  7. Beautiful post Sheryl and one I feel deep in my heart. Thank you x

    Reply
  8. Such a beautiful post, Sheryl! It deeply resonated with me as I have a toddler starting daycare so very soon. I am thinking of you and your family during this time. The love you have for your sons is beautiful and pure.

    Reply
    • Thank you, C. Sending big hugs as you navigate this transition!

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      • Sheryl, I have always felt the pride you have your kids in your writing but I’be also felt your ache these past few months. You should be so proud (healthy, happy grown son off to chase his dreams) but it’s such a big transition for you all as you settled into the new normal. I read your blog post and got in the car soon after and heard this song on the country station from Jordan Davis (the song is ‘Next thing you know’). This reminded me much of what you’re talking about. To love is to feel all of what you’re feeling, and I am thankful you’ve chosen to share it with us.

        “It’s first steps, first dates, first car
        It’s 11:01 wonderin’ where they are
        You’re sayin’ that USC’s too far
        It’s amazing how fast seventeen years go
        Next thing you know
        Next thing you know
        Next thing you know
        You get to know your wife again
        And you’re more in love than you’ve ever been
        With a lot of years of remember whens
        And still some down the road”

        Reply
    • Thank you Sheryl for this beautiful post. I have a 2.5 year old daughter and a baby boy coming in September.

      I notice anxiety flare up when I am alone with my daughter. It’s tricky to navigate sometimes but I’ve tried to allow for the feeling to be there, the fear of the intimacy, this sense of “not enough” for her, which makes me want to pull away when really all I want is to be there for her, to be close, to enjoy her but the fear sometimes pops up and wants me to hide or separate.

      I am trying to allow all feelings to be there, the awe, the fear, the love. Trying to make room for it all but hoping also I can find more space to enjoy her without the fear, I wonder sometimes if that intimacy is scary, the fear of loss, the awareness that we won’t always have this. I’m not sure what all is there but I will keep praying and journaling and allowing the what I can. Thank you for giving me tools and resources to try along the way that light the way.

      Reply
      • Letting ourselves love fully is one of the riskiest things we do. Sending hugs. ❤️❤️❤️

        Reply
  9. I’m tearing up here at work while I read this post. Everest and Asher are so fortunate to have you as their mom! I’m rooting for Everest big time and I’m so excited for all that he will bring into the world.

    Reply
    • Thank you so much, Jen! We’re very excited to see him bring his gifts into the world as well.

      Reply
  10. Beautiful, moving and poignant post Sheryl. Thank you. Your boys seem to have so many positive qualities and they are lucky to have you as their mom.

    Reply
    • Thank you, Claire. They get a lot of their positive qualities from their amazing Dad :). x

      Reply
      • Tears are flowing as I read this. I have been going through the same feelings as my son will be transitioning to secondary school, he has some learning difficulties and finds things quite challenging at times which makes me hold on even more. I am so scared of him not being able to cope and worry that he won’t find a place in this world without me. I try every day to let go and trust. I teach him the law of attraction and everything he can use to make his life easier hoping he will be able to live happily.
        Your words resonate with me and I feel every bit of your grief and it sort of feels comforting to know that this is normal and I’m not the only person with this depth of feeling. Thank you for sharing.

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        • Sending big hugs, Emma. Every child has their challenges and when we stay connected to them, they find their way.

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  11. Thank you for your honesty Sheryl. I am lately navigating the grief of my husband and son being diagnosed with Aspergers Syndrome. So many questions were answered but so many rose and so much anger came with them. My son is 13 so I feel like I knew only part of him for so long and I have no idea how to relate to him in a new way. It feels so strange and this grief feels heavy, it does not make me feel alive at all . But your post woke up something in me that I didn’t know I felt. That I am becoming a different mum for him and this grief is just a price to pay. A very unromantic and angry price but hopefully worth paying so we could relate to each other in a new way.

    Reply
    • The grief and anger make sense, Anna, and it’s beautiful to read your inner wise self coming through here:

      “But your post woke up something in me that I didn’t know I felt. That I am becoming a different mum for him and this grief is just a price to pay.”

      Reply
  12. This is so beautiful, Sheryl, thank you! And thanks to everyone for the comments – I love to hear about others’ journeys, and you all inspire me. I’m sending you love, Sheryl – I really appreciate your vulnerability. It makes me brave to share my real self, too.

    Love,
    Jamie

    Reply
    • Sheryl,
      Not long ago I was inspired by a Wisdom of Anxiety post that mysteriously appeared on my Instagram feed to follow you and subsequently read your book. As I am now heading into the last chapters of my life i have have been a decades long work in progress with regard to anxiety and high sensitivity. I have searched endlessly for answers and have gained understanding and tools with each passing year. I have never before related so personally with anything I have read or listened to as I have your offerings. Passage of time has always affected me deep in my core. Every example you have described I have felt. And yes, I remember as if yesterday the pain and tears that consumed me as we dropped our oldest child off for his freshman year in college (23 years ago!). This post has appeared in my life just when I needed it most. My daughter moved 2000 miles away three weeks ago, taking two of my grand babies with her (2 and 6). Our relationships have been so close, including babysitting her kids several days each week. There are memories of our times together everywhere I go and I can be consumed by grief at any point in time, based on those memories that can appear and take over out of the blue. I apologize for this long comment but I just want to thank you for sharing your insights with this community and the world. I have tried breathing in the sadness whenever it hits instead of avoiding possible triggers (my usual M.O) and letting the tears flow if they want. It has been so helpful in every way. I often end up in a place of gratitude rather than sadness. Thank you from the bottom of my heart.

      Reply
      • Dear Peggy: I’m filled with so much warmth as I read your words. Thank you for sharing your gratitude, and I’m so glad you found your way here. Sometimes Instagram has a magical and mysterious way of bringing us what we need!

        Reply
  13. Hi Sheryl,
    I also cried when reading this post. But it touched me in a different place since I don’t have children but I am the older daughter.

    Reading it it’s like having glimpses of what my mother could be feeling when I moved from home to go to college.

    I wasn’t aware of that grief and sadness at that time, I was very concentrated and excited about my jouney and she also supported me in the steps I wanted to follow.

    It was my sister who told me, after many years, about the sadness in the house, the sadness of not having me (her big sister) living with her and the sadness of my mother.

    It is a very difficult period when grown-up children feel that they need to follow their path and it unfortunately means that they are taking “a pice of home” from their parents and also from their siblings.

    It is so sad that my joy was related to my family’s grief and empitiness.

    It is the movement of life, the paradoxes that our brave hearts need to learn to navigate.

    Reply
    • This is an interesting perspective., Marie. Thank you for sharing it. While it’s true the your joy was connected to their grief, there is also goodness that arrives when the older child moves out. We’re always dancing in the polarity of paradoxical emotions where loss gives way to renewal.

      Reply
  14. Wow Sheryl, your Instagram post led me to this beautiful blog post. Tears steaming down my face as I read it. Feeling really intrigued by grief at the moment. Grief for my parents who are still here, grief for my two beautiful children 8 and 6, and I often stare at each of them and try to memorise them too. So beautiful and so painful. It seems these past weeks and months have been about feeling and allowing the grief of losing those I love while they’re all still here. Allowing the tears as they come but it’s not an easy thing to do when we’ve been so heavily conditioned to do the opposite. But what a beautiful learning and journey. Thank you also for writing about how you grieve. Feeling the ache in your heart. That really impacted me. Thank you for allowing these words to flow through you. I’ve just discovered your podcast through this and will be retuning to your wonderful book again after a few years. I love how these things just seem to flow into life at exactly the right time. Sending so much love your way as you and your family move through this transition x

    Reply
    • It sounds like we are in the same stage of life, as my kids are the same age. I could’ve written your post myself.

      I, too, am learning to embrace the crying and sadness and let it be, which is often harder than anything else. I always knew motherhood would be hard, but I didn’t anticipate this way being one of them.

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    • This is very beautifully expressed, Anna. Thank you.

      Reply
  15. This post is exactly what I needed to read to know that I am absolutely not alone in this grief. My kids go back to school in three weeks and I feel like part of me is being ripped out. No one in my regular life seems to understand the loss I’m feeling and why I keep crying each day.
    I have often felt that I connected deeper to my children than other parents, but your words have shown me that I’m just more attuned to that connection than others, so I feel it on a stronger level. I appreciate your writing so much.

    Reply
    • You’re not alone, Erin. We all feel it here. ❤️

      Reply
  16. This is very helpful. I wonder if there are some 19-year-olds that go to college that still need parenting? I’m thinking of my granddaughters who had a very difficult childhood and were not taught relationship skills boundary setting etc from their wounded mother. We have stepped in to provide housing, and I feel like they need significant help in maturation. I thank you for reminding us they also need our trust.

    Reply
    • Yes I think each child has their own timeline in terms of when they’re ready for less parenting.

      Reply

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