Cathi Kennedy reflects on what it looks like when grief overshadows life’s big moments.
I’m in a love/hate relationship with my Facebook memories. Sometimes they are sweet reminders of moments with my family or my friends. Sometimes they make me cringe that our posts used to be “Waiting in line at the BMV” with a frowny face emoji. Those were the days—we were social media innocents back in the day. But lately, my memories have been making me cringe for another reason.
Let’s unpack my psyche circa 2017. Our youngest son, Sam, was getting ready to graduate from high school and I was, in layman’s terms, losing my mind. I was caught in the in-between space when you are so excited and happy for them to start on a new chapter in life, while simultaneously mourning the relationship that was. He was moving away to a great school four hours from home, which seemed manageable—but also so far away.
I started making lists around February. The seemingly endless lists of things to buy, appointments to make, and forms to fill out. When I get overwhelmed with a situation, I go into “get it done” mode. Totes were bought, Amazon boxes stacked up, housing agreements signed, FAFSAs submitted, and dentist appointments scheduled.
I tried not to be an emotional mess around my son because I didn’t want him to feel bad, but I was spiraling. I had a countdown app on my phone that ticked away the months, days, and hours until move-in. The day finally came, and it went as expected—lots to do that kept us busy. And then it was time to say goodbye.
The president of the university said a prayer over the parents at the new-student assembly. It was beautiful and poignant—and it wrecked me. I hugged him goodbye and then I cried most of the way home. Then I cried the next day and for a few days more.
It wasn’t until recently that I realized what was actually the cause of my emotional upheaval during that time. I was mourning so much more, but it was all being laser-focused on Sam.
The summer before Sam’s senior year, our oldest son moved across the world to start a career. I was excited for him—it was an opportunity for an adventure of a lifetime! But I was missing him and his presence so much. And then, the biggest blow of all, my mom passed away in December. Her health had been in a slow decline for years and her heart eventually gave out. She passed peacefully. My dad had died years before, so now I was an orphan. I felt untethered to this world, drifting on a sea of grief.
I had worried about her for so long, had been in charge of her care and I wasn’t sure what to do with myself when that time was no longer an obligation. So I started making lists. I was preparing for the next loss the best way I knew how.
It seems obvious now: loss was piled onto loss in our lives, and it felt like one blow too many. My wounded heart couldn’t take one more hit. I don’t like situations—or feelings—that are too uncomfortable, so I push them down and away. This does not make those feelings or situations go away, it just morphs them into other things like obsessing over how much sunscreen and allergy medication I should buy (NOT that much!) and will his mattress cover be soft enough.
And because I am Catholic, please throw some guilt onto the pile of emotion I was carrying around. Guilt that I wasn’t trusting in God, guilt for my anxiety, guilt for not just being happy for my well-adjusted son who was doing something great.
I can’t go back and change my reaction. I can’t undo the anxiety and the sadness and the grief from my mom’s death that manifested into a crazed, list-making, buy-everything-at-Target mom. But I’m here to tell you that I lived through it. That God had a hand in it all. That my son ended up transferring to a school five minutes from our house. That I took the grief and sadness and flipped it into something positive by enrolling in graduate school. That I learned to be so grateful for having people in my life who I loved so deeply, who I could miss so much. That I developed a deep devotion to Mary, who is our holy mother and understands grief and loss more than any human who has ever lived.
If you are in the middle of the list-making, box-packing, frantic Target shopping, I want to assure you that your child will be ok, that you will be ok. That God has got you both in the palm of His hand and He’s never going to let you go.
Copyright 2022 Cathi Kennedy
About the Author
Cathi Kennedy is passionate about building relationships. At the University of Notre Dame, she advises graduate students for the Mendoza College of Business. An impassioned writer, voracious reader, and aspiring knitter married to a musician and mom to two amazing sons, Cathi is a convert to Catholicism. She seeks to learn something new about her faith every day.