My baby is a high school senior this year and she’s recently chosen the college she will be attending in the fall. Even though I’ve already navigated this transition before with the two other pieces of my heart, the coming change is still hard. Maybe even harder, because when my boys transitioned out into the world there were still little ones under my roof and my direct care. Which meant my identity and my purpose remained intact, and my life still had meaning, at least in my mind.
I’ve been a mom since I was sixteen. My babies, especially my oldest, have grown alongside me as I’ve added other layers to my identity: wife, college graduate, teacher, Master’s student, private tutor, diagnostician, and writer.
Of all of these titles that I’ve tacked onto myself to help me feel purpose and meaning, Mom is still my favorite. A title I adore. So becoming an empty nester has me questioning my identity.
Of course, I will still be a mom when my daughter leaves for college this fall. It’s a title I kept when my boys left home too. You don’t just stop being a mom. It’s a title you take with you to your grave and off into the great beyond. But the thought of a mostly empty four-bedroom farmhouse is a new experience for me. One that leaves me wondering what’s next.
Loss – the perceived deprivation of something deemed meaningful.
I enrolled in a grief study at church with one of my friends. In this grief study, we specifically studied Ecclesiastes 3:1-8.: To every thing there is a season, and a time to every purpose under heaven. If I’m being honest, I enrolled in this class with my friend because I was excited about studying the Bible with her. That’s our thing. And, I thought this study would help me understand the grief of my main character in my book.
Alexandria is, after all, a widow learning to let go and love again. I figured my grief around my Dad’s death would come up (See post Abundance is Found in Surrender), but I had no idea how much additional grief I was carrying around other losses.
Losses come in many shapes and forms:
- Disease (a loss of health)
- Miscarriage or stillbirth
- Job loss
- Material loss from fire or floods
- Dreams — having or not having children, getting married or staying single
- Perceived loss of identity (mom, dad, wife, daughter, employee)
- Even loss of an ideal we ‘ve carefully created in our minds
- And so many more
We invest our time in the people and things that bring our lives purpose and meaning. When we lose those people and things, we may question who we are and what we are supposed to do with our time. We may even wonder where we will find joy within our lives now that we’ve lost something that meant so much and was such a large part of who we are … were.
Invitation to joy in the midst of suffering.
In The Book of Joy: Lasting Happiness in a Changing World, Douglas Abrams interviews His Holiness the Dalai Lama and the Archbishop Desmond Tutu on the topic of joy. These three men: a Jew, a Buddhist, and a Christian, all teach that joy is a state of mind and heart, and joy leads to a life of purpose and meaning. And even more than that, these men believe that joy is our birthright and we have the freedom to choose joy again and again— but we must embrace the reality of our lives and transcend our suffering to obtain the level of joy they discuss.
I wouldn’t necessarily classify the next phase of my life as an empty nester as a period of suffering, but I have questioned the relationships, hobbies, vocations, and experiences that I will choose to focus on, so as to bring myself more joy and happiness, as well as purpose and meaning.
So, if I look to the Dalai Lama and the Archbishop as authorities on joy, then I have to explore this idea of suffering (as they define it) and how it robs me of joy.
The Dalai Lama repeats again and again that we create our own suffering within our minds from our “daily disasters,” and from our attempts to control the impermeable (i.e., the idea that nothing lasts). Impermanence is the cornerstone of Buddhist teachings and practice, and an inescapable fact of life. Per the Buddha, everything vanishes.
Our heartache comes from wanting things different than they are, from denying our reality, from resisting the storms we must pass through (Archbishop Desmond Tutu). I’m reminded of Ecclesiastes 3:1-8.: To every thing there is a season, and a time, and the impact of all those various losses in our life–losses that we may never have given ourselves grace to grieve before.
Mental immunity, per the Dalai Lama, is the solution to suffering. But developing mental immunity takes time and practice. It requires that we accept suffering, anxiety, illness, aging, death – the realities of this life that we often resist with the question why me, and fight with our belief that it shouldn’t be this way. Mental immunity requires that we avoid destructive emotions and learn to develop positive ones.
Hope is a conviction.
This will be the first time my husband and I will have ever been alone together. Yes, there have been date nights and short getaways, but there was no just-us honeymoon period at the start of our marriage because I already had my oldest son when we met. I know there will be positives to this new alone time. Let your imagination fire away. I sure am.
On the other hand, I’ve also allowed myself to see this empty-nest phase as the second phase of life – the phase that marches my husband and me into old age, illness, and disease.
How grim the future looks when I think of it that way! (An example of the suffering and destructive emotions the Dalai Lama spoke of.)
My husband and I are making plans to prioritize “us” when my daughter starts college this fall. We plan to take more trips, and spend more time with our friends. We are looking forward to having time for the gym, walks, hikes, and engaging in our individual and personal passions. For me that means more time for the book I’m writing and my second-half-of-life author career. For him, that will involve more fishing, because fishing is what brings him joy.
We’ve always prioritized our children and our family, so this newfound time feels guilt free – like a choice that will lead us straight to joy, if we will just allow ourselves the opportunity to explore this season in the light of hope.
I can’t know all the details around this next phase of life, but I do know that I will still be ‘Mom’, and that being a mom and a wife and a writer brings purpose, meaning, and joy to my life. And joy is what I’m really after.
What losses are you navigating? Are you entering a new phase of life? Give yourself grace to process your own personal losses in the way that feels best for you, and know that Abundance (joy) is always available to you.
Have you missed a post in the Abundance Series? Here are the posts thus far: