Last week my only daughter got married. And it was a joyous and love-filled experience for me. I was on cloud nine as I participated in the wedding day. A big part of my joy was in witnessing family, friends, and community express much love for my daughter and her husband.
After she left for her honeymoon, two days after the wedding, I felt a familiar pang of grief settle in my bones and in my consciousness. And I thought, “Oh, hello grief. I forgot that you too will be part of this significant life event.”
In that moment, I realized that not only will I experience the joyful, loving, over-the-top gratitude for my girl and her life, and her happiness with her new husband, but I will also experience grief.
The Different Forms of Grief
I am not a stranger to grief. Like other emotions, it takes many forms. I felt it deeply and painfully when my mother died when I was 20. I felt another version when I got divorced; and yet another version when my body changed drastically after having breast cancer.
I have felt grief intensely, in waves, and in gentle nudges. I have felt it relentlessly during certain periods of my life. I have had long periods of my life during which it has been in hibernation.
Grief and Mothering
Certainly, I have felt a version of grief throughout different experiences in my mothering. Yes, the grief that comes with being a mother, takes up residence alongside the joyful, momentous occasions.
After the birth of each of my three children, I felt immense joy and unmistakable grief. I felt grief because pregnancy and the kind of nurturing that only comes with pregnancy was over.
Grief sneaks in after the birth of a child as mothers realize that the birth itself represents a moving away. As life moves forward, our children move further away from us as they grow. The containment of pregnancy gives us a false sense that our child will always be close, always be sheltered by our own fierce protection.
Birth and Letting Go
Birth teaches us that this is not so. Grief comes at the moments and days after birth to remind us that one stage of mothering is ending and we must shift into the next stage; no longer do we nurture our children by sharing our bodies with them. Instead we learn how to nurture our children in our separateness from them.
A New Home
I felt this grief again, when my children (ages 5 and 3; my third child was not yet born) and I moved from New Jersey to Washington. At such tender ages, my children left behind the only home they had known and traveled to a new life in a completely unfamiliar place. They were so innocent and they completely trusted that my decision to move was a good one. I was not so sure myself; but my children never doubted me.
I still remember so clearly, the night during this cross-country move when my daughter realized she lost her beloved doll, her constant companion, somewhere between New Jersey and Washington state. The loss of that doll represented the loss of what we both held onto as familiar, comforting, reliable.
And in that moment, which felt as if it only contained loss, my daughter and I were hit with the realization that we had not yet created a new familiar to take the place of the losses. All my daughter and I felt in that moment was the raw emptiness that often comes before the new is created. So we held each other and cried.
Accomplishments and Growth
I felt this grief when each of my children graduated from high school and then college. Each of these transitions being defined by accomplishment and growth; but also defined by letting go, saying good-bye to childhood, and entering a new, unfamiliar territory again.
So much to say good bye to each time my children grew a little more, and moved into a more defined life for themselves. Each time they did this, I felt joy, gratitude, and immense love for them. Each time, grief was also a part of the experience.
Joy and Celebration
Now please don’t misunderstand me. I celebrate my children’s growth and happiness and forging their place in this world. I raised them to seek out their dreams, be independent, and create the life that deeply nourishes them. I am grateful beyond measure for all the ways my children are living and moving in this world as young adults.
Last week at my daughter’s wedding, I was filled with joy when I witnessed my daughter’s love for her husband and his love for her.
The Multi-Facets of Love
But it is realistic to acknowledge that within all of our most wonderful life-affirming moments, when love is crystallized, we are given an opportunity to be enriched by the multi-faceted aspects of love. Grief being one of them. There is never just one emotion when we love unconditionally, but rather many emotions that sometimes feel contradictory, but are all part of the same source.
The week since my daughter’s wedding, I have felt joy, happiness, gratitude, pride, grief, tremendous love, wistfulness and even some regret. (Was I the best mother I could have been? Did I enjoy every moment of raising her? What about the times we had conflict and struggled in our relationship?)
I am trying to accept, without judgement or resistance, all of my emotions that surface as I reflect on my daughter’s wedding. I know that it’s in the compassionate acceptance of our moment to moment experiences that we honor our emotions, allow them to be just as they are, and offer a channel for them to flow freely through us.
Embracing the Emotions of Mothering
It is my hope that as I continue to witness and participate in my children’s lives, that I will embrace all the emotions that come with being a mother and loving unconditionally. Not only the easy, comfortable emotions; but also the difficult ones that we tend to want to hide from or numb or minimize.
Being a mother has been the greatest joy of my life. I am grateful every day for the love I have for my three children and the love they have for me. It’s because of this love that grief is allowed to take up residence as part of my mothering experience. One cannot love deeply and genuinely without feeling grief at times.
Loss Contains Seeds of the Unknown
As children grow, change, and evolve, there is always something left behind. But when we can fully embrace these losses as parents, we also make room for the undiscovered and unknown. Each loss contains the seeds for new joys and deeper love.
I am looking forward to watching how my daughter and her new husband create the life of their dreams together. I am certain that I will experience wonderful new joys and deep abiding love as I witness their lives unfold and thrive together.
And I am certain that in all of the experiences yet to be, that grief will continue to remind me of the fragile, exquisite reality of loving unconditionally.