To the One Who is Left Behind

child-waving-goodbye quote

For Jo, and all the others who are left behind.

I watched with a sinking heart as my son walked through security and down the hallway to his gate. He was leaving from Logan International Airport for a gap semester in Oxford, England.

This was my youngest, my baby. The entire process of getting him ready and off was an event. I have said goodbye to many before — other family members, dear friends, other children — it was never easy, but this one felt different. It was the end of an era: An era of parenting that was finishing, a new stage beginning.

My husband and I had reversed the roles we had for so long; the roles where we were the ones leaving. Now it was our children and we were the ones left behind.

It’s always the same. I stand at the airport or in the driveway and the word ‘grief’ feels too shallow for what I feel, all the emotions that flow through my heart and mind. I watch as my life changes in slow motion as the people I love drive away or go through airport security.

“You sob like you will never stop. There is no one to hold you. There is no one to offer tangible, concrete comfort. Slowly the sobs swallow you up. You begin to feel such relief, the relief that comes only from a cry so deep you can’t explain it. And somehow you know that God is there.”*

I know with each parting, that life will never be quite the same and I’m never quite sure I will be able to handle it. I’m never convinced that this time might be the time where I become undone, where I can no longer pick up the pieces of those left behind — move forward when those I love are gone. But each time I do. Each time I survive, and I smile and laugh again, and though it hurts, somehow it’s okay. 

So this piece is for the one who is left behind.

I don’t know your exact situation, but I surely know this ‘deeper than grief’ feeling, I know what it is to leave, but I also know what it is to be left behind. Here are some thoughts for those who are left behind.

  1. Have an immediate plan. Whether it is to rearrange the furniture or go on an outing, have an immediate plan for that day or evening. There is something about taking charge and ‘doing’ that can be of tremendous help the day of departure. After each of my kids left home, I rearranged the furniture.
  2. Recognize that most of the advice and literature deals with those who have left, not those who are left. It’s maddening really, but there you have it. I believe being left is far harder than leaving. The one who leaves goes into a new situation, usually without memories of you that have to be faced. You are left with memories of everything from the mundane to the wonderful, and whispers and shouts of your loved one’s presence are everywhere.
  3. Face your feelings. Unresolved grief happens when you don’t face those feelings, you don’t admit the loss. Unresolved grief leads to depression, anxiety, and health problems. It can also lead to bad behavior. Facing your feelings means you might get angry that the person has left, that you might feel sad and lost, that you might feel a myriad of other things. Facing them means admitting and accepting them. Not forcing them down as unacceptable, foolish, silly, stupid, or not real.
  4. Don’t let anyone dictate what you should or shouldn’t feel. Job’s comforters come in every size, every shape, and every language. If you feel uncomfortable with the advice or supposed comfort you are getting from someone than you are probably face to face with one of these “comforters.” It’s okay to feel what you feel. It’s okay to miss people. And it’s also okay to move forward at your own pace. Best to separate yourself from these “comforters,” surrounding yourself instead with those who will comfort well.
  5. Eat right, sleep well, exercise. The mind/body connection is huge and it is so critical to take into account. Protein and Vitamin C are the bodies healers. Make sure your diet is high in both those things. Exercise releases the all important endorphins. Even though our circumstances have not changed, after we exercise our response to those circumstances is generally healthier. And sleep – such a gift! One of the morning prayers in the Orthodox prayer book says this: “…who providest us with sleep as a rest from our infirmities and as a repose for our bodies tired by labor.” That’s what sleep can be for us – true rest from the hard.
  6. Find ways to express what you feel. You don’t have to be a writer to express yourself in a journal. You don’t have to be an artist to pick up paints and paper. You may decide to express your loss through talking, through writing, through hiking, through decorating. There are a myriad of ways to express your feelings so don’t be afraid to explore these.
  7. Expect a roller coaster ride. Saying goodbye to people we love and beginning a new stage without them can result in a wide range of emotions. Don’t think you’re crazy if one minute you want to weep and miss them terribly and the next you are fine without them. This roller coaster ride of emotions is completely normal.
  8. Know what is normal and what is not. While missing someone’s presence is normal, prolonged grief and inability to move on with your life is called ‘complicated grief.’ Complicated grief disrupts normal life and prevents you from healing. This is a time to seek counsel and help. There is grief and then there is complicated grief. While saying goodbye is difficult, it is something that we should be able to recover from, grateful for the time we had with the person but ready to move forward in a new normal.
  9. Try something new. As time moves on, it is a good thing to move into new activities. It’s a way to make new friends as well as engage your mind and body in something different. Learn a new language, take a cooking class, join a book or hiking club. Notice – all these things involve interacting with other people. It’s important not to wallow alone. Wallow with people. Your wallowing could well turn to laughter sooner than you ever thought possible.
  10. Lastly, learn how to communicate creatively with those whom you said goodbye to. Through letters, media, phone calls, emails – the list is long on the ways you can choose to communicate and keep in touch. Always keep in mind, however, that it is not healthy to want to spend every minute on the phone or texting with the person you said goodbye to. It won’t bring them back and it will prevent you from growing and moving forward.

Great writers manage to convey far more in fictitious scenarios than I can in ‘real-life’ advice, so I will end with words from a great writer:

“Well, here at last, dear friends, on the shores of the sea comes the end of our fellowship in Middle-earth. Go in peace! I will not say: do not weep; for not all tears are an evil.”
― J.R.R. Tolkien, The Return of the King

What else would you add to this list?

Photo Credit: Word Art by Marilyn R. Gardner

*Between Worlds

19 thoughts on “To the One Who is Left Behind

  1. A massive heartfelt thank you for not dismissing my grief over watching family leave. My brother and family will soon have emigrated and it will be a massive loss for me. Like many a TCK I hate goodbyes but more than that its the separation I dread. I am full of the same tornado of emotion I used to feel in the lead up to returning to boarding, the rage and frustration of feeling “powerless”, the soul ache of “abandonment” and the fear of being forgotten. I think these feelings are heightened by being single with no family of my own.
    I really appreciate you taking the time to write this advice down, I will revisit it often in the weeks to come!


  2. A massive heartfelt thank you for not dismissing my grief over watching family leave. My brother and family will soon have emigrated and it will be a massive loss for me. Like many a TCK I hate goodbyes but more than that its the separation I dread. I am full of the same tornado of emotion I used to feel in the lead up to returning to boarding, the rage and frustration of feeling “powerless”, the soul ache of “abandonment” and the fear of being forgotten. I think these feelings are heightened by being single with no family of my own.
    I really appreciate you taking the time to write this advice down, I will revisit it often in the weeks to come!


  3. lovely

    Ive been thinking about the staying behind thing recently. after the repatriation in my life most of my parents friends were ex pats that continued with their postings taking their sons and daughters with them – my friends – with them. not only was i in the “wrong: country, but i was also staying behind as you describe. your writing is beautiful.


    1. Oh you described it so perfectly – this is exactly what I have felt – in the wrong country and staying behind. Thanks for getting it so well! I also remember feeling intense jealousy that my friends got to stay. Has that happened with you?


  4. Marilyn, I guess moving furniture around has always been one of my favorite ways of coping. I remember long ago when Hu was away, I chose his absence to do my rearranging. Often my friends would make comments. Once Dr. Holland (remember him) remarked about a change and my reply; “It’s like this Ronnie, I figure it’s cheaper to move my furniture around than to see a psychiatrist.” Your suggestions are very practical. Oh, not only did I like the new arrangements better, I would be so tired out that sleeping was never a problem.


    1. I love this! I never thought about the physical aspect about it but it’s true. I always end the day so tired. I also think there is something about furniture and decorating where we can exercise appropriate control. Create order out of chaos. So when life feels chaotic, what better thing to do than clean, create, and put out a vase of flowers?! You modeled this well Bettie.


      1. Or bake bread? Once in Shikarpur a guest came into the kitchen when I was kneading bread or taking it out of the oven (can’t remember which) and said something about being amazed that I had time to bake bread in my busy life. My answer: “It’s so therapeutic – the one thing that I can start and finish in the same day and sit down and enjoy the fruits of my labor.” I was never one to rearrange furniture much, so I had to find something else to do.


  5. Great post again! Thank you for the helpful tips. I rearranged some furniture the other day, which I don’t normally do. Felt better afterward. My oldest son and family are with us for a couple more months and then they are off again. We talk about feast or famine in our family! The furniture rearrangement was more to help me deal with clutter collecting in my house!


    1. Yes Julie! Feast of famine is right. It is comically annoying! Either no one is here, or EVERYONE with all their stuff. (emotional and physical) and so as much as I want to completely enjoy and relax, and usually do, there are those moments when it’s like “all of you -just go!” Thanks for being honest with this!

      Liked by 1 person

  6. “I will not say ‘Do not weep,’ for not all tears are an evil.”

    I think just about everything we need to learn in life we can learn from Lord of the Rings, Chronicles of Narnia, and of course, Anne of Green Gables. ;)


      1. When I heard about the man who played Gilbert dying I nearly texted my sister but didn’t because hearing it while at work would have been too upsetting for her.


      2. I did! I am still in shock. I was playing backgammon with my daughter tonight and couldn’t stop thinking about how he was the only Gilbert EVER and will the movies still be the same while knowing he’s not around anymore?? (I may need to watch them soon to find out.) Also did you see how Sarah Bessey poured out a bottle of Raspberry Cordial for him? Beautiful.


  7. Marilyn. Marilyn. Marilyn. You’ve done it again. You’ve made me cry. Yesterday Connor and his girlfriend drove to Kansas City to attend a concert. They spent the night with a friend and are driving home this morning in time for school. As they drove away a pain/panic/grief/heartache was driven into me. I knew, suddenly, as if for the first time, that he really is going to leave in August for University. This is it. He’s all grown up. He will leave and we will be left behind. And I will be one of those mothers who sobs….. But now I have a list to manage my heart ache… a place to start…thank you.


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