One of Butch’s favorite stories to tell when someone mentioned children leaving home or empty nesters was about a couple who stood, arm in arm, as their last child drove away from home to live on their own. The wife wistfully turned to her husband and said, “Well, dear, you are all I have left.” The husband thoughtfully replied, “Well dear, I’m all you started with.”
I remember listening to a friend talking about her oldest child preparing to move out to launch their new life. At that time, our sons were 16 and 12. I told her that I could not imagine what it would be like to have one of your children leave home and not be part of the flow of your life. It seemed so sad. She assured me that God had a way of helping you with that project. She said there is no one more arrogant and all-knowing that a senior in high school. This way, by the time they graduate and head off, you can’t wait for them to leave. After a few attempts at launching and returning, by the time my kids both left home for their new lives, I was, indeed, looking forward to having an empty nest with Butch.
Having attended a soccer event at least monthly, if not weekly for 20 years, it was strange to be distant from that part of their lives. I was not sure there actually was life after soccer. There were now no children to blame for messes, dirty dishes, or undone chores. It was all us. The empty gas tank could not be the fault of a third party. We gradually found a nice flow where, most of the time, we each did the chores we enjoyed and negotiated the rest. He did the lawns, I did the flower beds. We did big yard projects together. I washed and dried the laundry as I dashed off to work or school and he folded and put it away as he watched TV. No hassle, no arguments, just cooperative partnership. It was never really balanced, though. I went back to school in 2006 and was often engaged in work or school 60 hours per week and doing homework the rest of the time. He maintained not only our home, but the clean and sober residence we owned and his mother’s house, after her husband died.
I attended a workshop once, where the speaker asked us to introduce ourselves without a reference to another person. Terms such wife, mother, neighbor, teacher, employee, etc. were off the table. We had to describe ourselves in terms of what we enjoyed or wanted to do or become, or our past accomplishments, etc. It was so hard for everyone to define themselves as just a self, not as a part of a relationship. A great discussion followed about how other people are so woven into the fabric of our lives that we forget that we are individuals with hopes and dreams of our own. It reminded us that there is a huge difference between unhealthy dependence and empowering interdependence. Shortly thereafter, I attended another workshop where the facilitator said, “Please introduce yourself and tell us a little about yourself.” I used the same introduction I had struggled to craft at the previous event. I said I had gone back to school recently and was excited about a second career as a therapist. I love soccer, the ocean and the mountains. I enjoy reading books about the brain and my hobby is beading. The facilitator stared at me like a deer in the headlights for a couple seconds, and then said, “Don’t you want to tell us anything personal? You know, like if you are married or your family or things like that?” No codependency here.
Becoming us without them forces us to examine ourselves as an individual, whether we want to or not. The first year is all about the blinding pain. There is so much to do. Putting one foot in front of the other is about all we can manage. We ask, “Where am I and how did I get here?”
The next year or so is about what has been taken. Whatever roles they played in our lives must be filled in another way. We have to figure out their half of everything. We are aware of the gaping holes in our hearts and lives. We are without. There is not one relationship that existed when we were a couple that remains unchanged. Some, sadly, end. New ones must be carved out of what seems like stone. We wonder, “Can I really live without them? Do I want to?”
We have hoped that we might begin to see the light at the end of the tunnel by the third year. The pain of the loss itself has softened in intensity and swamps us less often. We have fallen into most of the holes and found most of the minefields. The work of the third year seems most difficult of all. Becoming us without them now means precisely that, standing alone as us, just us, and only us. The more we defined ourselves as the sum total of our relationship with them, the harder this will be. We are left asking the question, “Do I matter alone? Can there be joy again?”
The degree to which we formed our own support network, our own interests, and our own internal sense of safety and belonging, will determine what happens next. If we have none of that in place when we hit this stage in the grief process it will be an arduous task to keep our heads above water. Even if we have all our resources lined up and waiting, this is hard work. Is the pain loneliness or invisibility? We woke up every day knowing that we mattered to them. Even if they were mad at us, we were on their mind. They wanted to be with us. No one had to make a note to include us in their plans. It was a given. Do we matter to anyone now? Does anyone wake up and wonder how we are doing and look forward to hearing our voice? Have we become only an obligation? An item on someone’s to-do list? Are we nothing more than that extra thing that people must remember?
At its core, becoming us without them means finding an answer to that one question. What makes us matter? Is the answer found only in the eyes of the people in our world or is it found deep inside of ourselves? Is it measured by our calendar or the number of connections on our social media page? What is its source? Who can help us navigate in the wilderness as we seek to find joy on our own?
When Butch participated in the Eppie’s Great Race all those years, it was on him to believe in his ability to complete the race. It was necessary for him to invest in himself. He had to practice every Saturday for weeks despite hating to run. He set aside resources for the proper equipment. He planned and strategized. He was proud of himself every year; not because he ever won, but because he overcame all the obstacles and got to the end. He would be the first to tell you that he could not have made it on his own. The support people along the way were invaluable. They gave him water as he ran by. They cheered. They kept his bike safe while he ran and as he completed the kayaking leg. They secured his kayak while he hobbled onto shore and across the finish line. They loved supporting the race as much as he loved participating.
The journey of grief is a marathon, not a sprint. One thing we know above all else. It is impossible to finish alone. We must reach out for those cool glasses of water as we run. We need to invite others to share our marathon, so they can cheer for us. Even the most gifted athletes ask for and accept the tangible help they need to compete successfully. So, must we.
In the end, we matter because we show up and run the race. We matter to ourselves and to those who are enriched by our having been in their lives. Best of all, we mattered to God before we were ever born, and we will matter to him for eternity.