When our daughter Maddy was in primary school, her older brother was applying to college. One spring morning, while she and I waited in the driveway for the school bus, Maddy looked sad. She asked if Jonah would still be her brother after he moved away. Quickly, I reassured her. “Yes, no matter what, Jonah will always be your brother, forever.” “Even if we don’t live together anymore?” she questioned, again. “Yes, forever,” I repeated emphatically, saddened by her uncertainty. Maddy understood family to mean, simply, “the people who live with us.”
This simple misunderstanding, in hindsight, reflected a grain of truth that I hadn’t yet fully realized: when family members are absent, we share fewer experiences. As a result, we feel less connected. After Jonah left for college, we no longer regularly ate meals or watched movies together. Maddy and Jonah no longer played tennis or rode their bikes together. Although Jonah called home every Sunday afternoon, our interactions lacked the daily intimacy of our previous family life. He was now living in a new city, a six-hour drive away from our once-shared home. This distance, both geographic and emotional, felt like a profound loss, the end of an era. Jonah graduated from college, found a job, and rented an apartment of his own. He had launched. We had to let go, to create a different type of family relationship, blending love and distance.
Eventually, we adjusted to living as a family of three. But then, my beloved husband suddenly died. This time, we didn’t get to say goodbye. There was no preparation, no planning. There was no possibility of weekly phone calls or of periodic reunions. He was still my husband, and he was still their father. Yet, he’s absent from this world, unable to share experiences, to express his love. We can’t help but feel less connected to him than we once did. We have to let go, to create a different type of relationship, blending love and distance. We’re trying.
After my husband’s death, Maddy and I became a household family of two, a duo, bonded together in grief. We’ve spent almost three years figuring out how to navigate daily life together as a single mom and semi-orphaned daughter. Now, Maddy is finishing her senior year of high school. Soon, she’ll be moving to college. And I’ll have to let go, to create a different type of relationship, both with her, my daughter, and also with my adult family, because she’s the only one of them left. She’s my last link to our happy shared family life. Living without her under the same roof will mark the end of an era.
As Maddy’s graduation date approaches, a new type of anticipatory grief hits me in waves. I know that our loving family bonds will remain permanent even as we’ll share fewer experiences and feel less connected. With this knowledge, I try to savor the events of this spring: her last violin recital, her last birthday at home, our last Mother’s day together. I try to keep perspective about loss, and permanence, reminding myself that family bonds endure despite distance, even despite death.