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  • Writer's pictureCatherine Tidd

Widowhood and Back-to-School: People Aren't Meant to do This Alone

A big part of me has always hated this time of year. I've written about it before - how nothing screams the passage of time as a single parent quite like back-to-school. All the pictures of two parents hugging children on social media, happy families going to open houses where excited kids run the halls looking for classrooms - all of it has always made me feel so very widowed.

But after 13 years, I thought I had it licked. Don't get me wrong - the first few years were horrible and I still tear up at any school awards ceremonies, wishing my husband could be there with me.  But I got used to it. I'd feel sad, but it wouldn't overwhelm me.

Not like this year.

As I write this, I'm sitting alone in a hotel room after dropping my daughter off at college. I'll fly home tomorrow, where I will hug my two younger kids and be grateful for my remaining time with them at home like I have never been before. Last night, I optimistically thought I'd have time on my own this afternoon to explore the city and do something fun.

At 11:00 this morning, I decided my time would be better spent resting and allowing myself to cry.

Millions of parents are going through what I'm going through this weekend - I know this because the Targets and Walmarts near my daughter's university are completely cleaned out. They look like war zones. The thing is that not all of them are going through it alone. And that has brought my grief all the way back to those first years of preschool and elementary school when I was a newly widowed parent, completely devastated that I was experiencing this all by myself.

It made me think of something that I wrote in my book about how, while others will offer help, no one is "in it" like your spouse is. No one is as invested in your children as they are. So, without that partner, you just don't have the same support.

I know that even with a partner, this time of year can be devastating (in a positive way - so weird). Last night at a moving ceremony, I thought the person behind me was laughing. I finally turned just a little to give them the stink-eye and realized she was sobbing. So, it's not like the hurt is reserved for the widowed.

Sitting next to my daughter today, just before we parted, I felt like I did bringing her to school for the first time. Her hand in mine was the size of an adult, but it still felt like she was in kindergarten to me. It was a surreal moment when I left her, like dropping her off for summer camp. I had a couple of years where all the kids went to camp for two weeks at the same time and, while it was nice to have time to myself, I had serious anxiety when I left them. Your family makes your home no matter where you are - I learned that when I said goodbye to them.

And today I left a little piece of my home in a dorm room with two other girls - but the pain feels even more acute.

As I got into my car this morning after the final ceremony, I thought about the other parents getting into there's. Were they crying together? Were they just talking about what to do with the rest of their day? Were they sitting in silence, wondering if their relationship would be better or worse now that the buffer of a child was gone?

I so desperately wanted Brad sitting next to me, sharing this experience as only the other parent could. For the first time in a long time, I didn't feel like I had this widow thing under control. I started sobbing as I pulled out of the parking garage and have kept up a steady stream since then - I wish he could be here so we could comfort each other, or even distract each other.

I've gotten very good at being alone and it's something that I crave in many cases. But what I'm experiencing right now should never be experienced alone. The growth and transition of a family should be experienced by a WHOLE family and I can't help but feel the sorrow of two parents right now, because one isn't here to go through it.

My daughter has been dry-eyed and excited this weekend and that has made all of this a little more bearable. I've been doing my best to shield her from my own grief. I'm sure there will be moments of homesickness for her, just like I'm homesick for her already. And I'm so grateful for her enthusiasm and her ability to jump into this next chapter with both feet. There's something I can learn from that.

For a process that's part of our evolution, this seems downright inhumane. I've had many moments when I've thought, "I can't do this." In fact, I almost wanted to leave her at some points and just walk out because this was all too much to bear (which makes no sense - I'm sad because I don't want to leave her, but my body wanted to run away? Explain that to me, therapist).

I have no idea what comes next because, like childbirth, you can't explain something like this to someone else - you just have to plow your way through it. Honestly, if we could accurately explain childbirth, no one would have babies. If I could truly put into words how painful sending a kid to college is, no one would get past high school. So, I guess this just has to be part of the parenting experience.

Will I feel better when I get home tomorrow? How long with this grief process last? Will my heart ever feel whole again?

I don't know.

So, now I'm going to completely clean this hotel room out of tissues and allow myself to sit still and just feel what I need to feel (which is not easy for me) and hope that our next version of the new normal isn't hard to find.

Because right now I feel more than a little lost.

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