To the One Who is 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 in Boston, Massachusetts 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 the same and I’m never quite sure I will be able to handle it. I’m never sure whether this time might be the time where I become undone, where I can no longer pick up the pieces and move forward accepting that 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. When my best friend left Cairo for London, I made plans that evening. It wasn’t to dull the pain – it was to force me into a new reality.
  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. Not only should you face your feelings, but it’s vitally important to allow your children to express their feelings when they need to.
  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 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. Depending where you live, this could be difficult. If you are in a small village in Pakistan, it’s unlikely that a lot of new people will come your way. But no matter where you are, there is something new that you can do or learn. Learn a new language or dialect, ask a friend to teach you how to cook authentic food from your adopted country, start something different every week with your family. 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

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An adult third culture kid, Marilyn grew up in Pakistan and then raised her own 5 third culture kids in Pakistan and Egypt. After finally learning how to live in the United States, she finds herself unexpectedly living in the Kurdish Region of Iraq working at a university. She is the author of Between Worlds: Essays on Culture and Belonging and Worlds Apart - A Third Culture Kid's Journey. Her writing appears in Plough Magazine, Fathom Magazine, and a few other places around the web. You can find her blogging at Communicating Across Boundaries: Communicating Across the Boundaries of Faith & Culture.

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