September 2011

Turning Pages

Dropped off the firstborn child (a daughter) at college for the first time. A friend posted on Facebook that dropping of your child at college isn't the hardest part. For her, it was coming home and seeing the empty bedroom. That resonated. A bittersweet day.

Bittersweet is a fine and common word that comes with many of life's major changes: Bitter because it's hard and hard to take; but sweet as there's affirmation, excitement and comfort, too. We can get stuck in the bitter, and it can sometimes overwhelm the sweet. Friends and family often prefer us to focus on the sweet as it's hard to witness the experience of the bitter. We want the sweet, too, but it's not a choice to have only sweet. Life is too nuanced for only one.

When my son was five years old, we moved from one neighborhood in our city to a nearby neighborhood. At first he seemed mostly upset with the change, but after seeing the new, larger house and seeing that it had stairs, he was excited. The newness and excitement didn't sustain him, however, and he felt nostalgic and sentimental about the only home he had ever known. Driving in the car, I asked him about how he was in regards to the move. He replied, "Well, first I was sad, then I was happy, and then I was sad again. That makes two sads and one happy." At the age of five, he knew it was a mixed bag. Bittersweet.

There's a book by Judith Viorst called Necessary Losses which captures well the idea that life, even when nothing unusual or traumatic occurs, is filled with loss. When we're very young, we think that we are the most important and only ones. But if we are to grow and mature, we lose the center of the world/top of the heap impression and realize that we are one of many and it is good to share. When young, we may also see our parents as all-powerful, all-knowing and strong. As we mature, we get increasing glimpses into the weaknesses and limitations of all people, including our parents. We find that they are fallible and sometimes helpless and that is a loss. It is also a gain as we understand more about life and can move toward more realistic expectations for them and for ourselves. Viorst's idea is that life is full of loss and how we respond to loss determines whether we mature and grow or whether we get stuck: not moving on to the next stage of development, not able to recognize and grieve well what we have lost, not finding ways to be open to the next thing.

It happens all the time. We wrestle with losses, big and small, as we learn what is lost and what remains. We can't know all at once, it takes some grappling. And when we learn what was and what is, we can be more open to what may be. But we don't always learn because to do so is hard.

Years ago, a single mother's only son was being treated for cancer. She talked of her experience and how her perspective on life had changed, how it had deepened and she had grown. She didn't know whether or not her son would survive, but she saw growth in the midst of the experience. Ending her reflection, she commented that everyone in her situation probably had a similar experience of growth and insight. But she was wrong. We all get losses, but not all of us find ways to be open to the growth. The bitter may not want to give up center stage and leave any room the sweet.

When we make room for both, growth can come. Young adult children can bloom at college in brand new ways. Empty-nest and empty-bedroom parents can bloom, too. Even in unexpected, unjust, unnecessary losses, the same dynamics can apply although the challenges are much, much steeper. If not, then life truly is too tragically bitter.

Wisdom can also come. Not the kind of learning that is graded on a test (even in college). That's knowledge and information. Wisdom comes along as the caboose, the potential byproduct of loss and living. Author Annie Dillard captures it well:

But as she has grown, her smile has widened with a touch of fear and her glance has taken on depth. Now she is aware of some of the losses you incur by being here-the extraordinary rent you pay as long as you stay.

Turning the page is sometimes the hardest thing we have ever done, yet how else can we truly experience the rest of the story?

Greg Adams, Director
Center for Good Mourning

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