My grandparents had a gorgeous old grandfather clock in their den where my grandmother rocked and knitted while my grandfather read his paper. I loved the deep, resonate sound it made every second of every day.

Tick… Tock… Tick… Tock…

That tangible reminder of time passing was as comforting as the very predictability of the ticks themselves.

Memories of that beloved grandfather clock crept into my mind a few years ago when it was time to let go a little more as another chapter of my empty nest to begin. My son was driving off to begin his second year of college. He’d been home only a brief two days during the summer and this year, didn’t need us to take him back to school, a ritual that for some reason, I hadn’t anticipated giving up. He was taking his own car, and explained with a gentle smile, “Mom, there’ll be plenty of guys to help.”  I swallowed hard and smiled. So after tight hugs good-bye, his dad and I stood at the end of our driveway, waved and blew kisses while he drove away.

Or at least I blew kisses, as we both let go a little more, wiping our noses as a few tears rolled down our cheeks.

Letting go a little at a time...

But back to my story.

The next morning I was in my routine, driving to work and was reminded that the local school district was also starting a new year because — much to my dismay at first — I was stuck in the long line of cars in front of an elementary school. Marching along the sidewalk was a colorful parade of entire families, celebrating going back to school.

Dads were carrying tousled toddlers on their shoulders while moms were pushing baby carriages, and the family dog loped along, curious as to what was going on. Younger kids clasped the hands of their older brothers and sisters who were dressed in not-a-spot-on-’em-outfits with brightly-colored backpacks tightly fit onto their little bodies. Some children giggled and walked with a confident stride, others were staring down at their feet as if they were a bit overwhelmed.

There was the occasional fifth grader who was far too mature for all of this ceremony and walked a few feet ahead of their parents.  And I could only imagine that some of those very parents were dreading the walk back home, surreptitiously wiping away a tear or two, with the anticipation of leaving their newly minted Kindergartener in their first classroom.

It was almost too picturesque, but also poignant as my irritation at being stuck in traffic dropped away. At first, I was reminded at what a difference a few years make. But then, I realized how everything is really just the same. Just like me, these parents were loving their kids, watching them grow. Change. Transition. Pride, happiness, and satisfaction can all coexist with sadness.

Letting go a little at at time.

And letting go can go smoothly, or not. Obviously, some homes don’t provide even basic safety or security for their kids, and those kids run into huge problems. Or some stay-at-home parents have quite the job in front of them, especially if they’ve centered their lives around their children. Helicopter parents can be frantic and actually impair that child’s ability to soothe themselves, learn to manage their own lives and schedules, and fight their own battles. Couples who haven’t nurtured their own relationship will hope that not too much time has gone by, and they can remember what it’s like to look forward to being together.

But is there a way to prepare for not only empty nest, but other changes in life? How can you make letting go a little easier?

What is anticipatory grieving? 

Remember that time will keep passing, that your feelings will change because they constantly evolve. Even the deepest grief can abate because the human spirit heals if you nurture it and give it time. That clock keeps ticking.

But you can begin to do what’s called anticipatory grieving. That may sound like a pessimistic thing to do, but it’s actually a wonderful skill to have. Whether it’s a child leaving home, or a loved one dying, retirement, aging, or having to cope with an illness, you begin to imagine what those changes will bring, and what skills you have to cope with them. What’s that old saying? Prevention is worth a pound of cure. If you’ve imagined living through it, you can at least to begin working on acceptance. Not resignation. Acceptance. And you can imagine yourself thriving as best you can.

Then get back to the present. And relish what you’re enjoying and learning each day. Because tomorrow it will be behind you; the memories you make today might just be ones you look fondly upon decades later.

Tick… Tock… Tick… Tock…


You can hear more about mental health and many other topics by listening to my podcast, SelfWork with Dr. Margaret Rutherford. Subscribe to my website and receive one weekly newsletter including my weekly blog post and podcast! If you’d like to join my FaceBook closed group, then click here and answer the membership questions! Welcome!

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Originally published August 23, 2014 and republished on August 17, 2019.

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