An Open Letter to the Parent Crying at Graduation (From a mom who survived it)
[This article by Kami Gilmour is an excerpt from a chapter in her best-selling book, Release My Grip: Hope for a Parent's Heart as Kids Leave the Nest and Learn to Fly
When my daughter entered her senior year of high school a few years ago, I was a complete train wreck.
Seriously: I. Was. Not. Okay.
I couldn’t fathom how the years had slipped away so quickly and we were already approaching this huge milestone. I desperately wanted time to slow down to delay the inevitable “last time moments.”
I wandered through her entire senior year with tear-fogged eyes, paralyzed by grief at the thought of letting her go. I even quit my job so I could try to make up for the guilt and regret of all the moments I was certain I'd missed.
Nostalgia was my nemesis, and I was tormented by my constant reflection of the past and a mantra that my heart kept whispering..."How did this all go by so fast?"
Memories of her growing up repeated in my head like clips from a sappy movie, culminating in visions of the farewell scene as we dropped her off at college. Would we be in her dorm room? Would we be driving away watching her in the review mirror as she waved from the residence hall steps? Would she cry? Would her dad cry? Would I even be able to breathe?
So I cried through her entire senior year.
And then I cried through graduation. (You can hear it on our video recording.)
I cried during her college orientation that summer. (Total meltdown in the middle of a parent seminar.)
I cried and hugged a random mom in the checkout line at Target because both of our carts were full of dorm essentials. (I was so thankful to know I wasn't the only one.)
I cried as we packed up her boxes and loaded the car. (No one ever mentioned how painful that part is!)
And when the moment I'd been dreading finally arrived, I cried SO, SO hard as I hugged her one last time in the parking lot of her quad and said goodbye.
Of course I also cried the whole way home…and for a few weeks after she’d left when I walked by her empty bedroom or saw her vacant chair at the dinner table.
But gradually the crying ceased.
That “day of letting go” had come and gone, and I had survived.
But more importantly, my daughter had survived leaving home, and she was thriving in college. She loved her new friends, her classes, the campus life and the freedom of this new season.
And hearing her share about her new life filled me with so much joy that I forgot to be sad.
Fast forward several years—she’s a junior in college and studying abroad for six months and now her brother is graduating from high school and heading off to college this fall.
And shocker: Crying isn’t happening for me this time around. (Ummm…at least not as much.)
I’ve realized the secret to surviving my kids leaving the nest is to be fully present with them, looking forward to the future through the lens of their life, not backwards through the lens of my life.
I'd been so preoccupied by the suffocating vice-grip of mommy-mourning of what I was "losing" that I hadn't paid much attention to how exciting this new phase of life was going to be for her.
Truth? This season is about them—NOT about me. (Okay, everything with my kids is still a little bit about me, but graduation is certainly not my spotlight.)
Watching my daughter grow into the amazing young woman she’s becoming during college has been a true joy. She’s had ups and downs during these years, but it’s been evident how her independence has helped her grow into her true self.
Remembering this helps me come back to what is real and what is now—and find relief in being present in this sweet season of her young adult life as I put my trust in God's plans for her future.
I'm not beating myself up for feeling the pains of letting go—because they are REAL and it is HARD to embrace this transition. I will NEVER make it through these times without some breakdowns. But I don't want my tears to overshadow milestones that deserve to be celebrated with joy and pride.
And now it’s my son’s turn.
As his high school graduation and college departure looms ahead on the calendar, I refuse to torment myself with visions of our last goodbye when we drop him off at his dorm. And I refuse to twist the memories of his chubby toddler hands cupping my face as he professed his love for me “to the moon and back” into a motherhood-meltdown where I'm stuck in grief longing for days gone by.
I love him, I believe in him, and I'm excited for him—so this time around I’m focusing my heart on savoring the details of these last few months with him, and visions of him thriving in college and growing into a wonderful adult I can’t wait to get to know better.
As my son leaves the nest, letting go of him will be tough. But he'll be back. And then he'll leave again. And again. This season of young adulthood will adopt a “new normal” with the rhythm of coming and going.
What I know for sure as a "veteran" mother of a graduating kid is this simple truth: The finish line is just a myth.
Parenthood is a life-long journey—and it’s also a life-long (often-painful) practice of letting one season go as a new season begins. It begins postpartum and doesn’t end on our kid’s 18th birthday…or their high school graduation…or when they leave for college…or when they graduate from college…or when they get married…or even when they become parents themselves.
Parenthood will never be over, and God will never be done with them. It’ll just be a different season.
And I want to be present for it.
Written by Kami Gilmour, mom of five teen and young adult kids. She's the author of a best-selling book that chronicles her imperfect journey of parenting in this season with a refreshing sense of honesty, humor, and practical insights: Release My Grip: Hope for a Parent's Heart as Kids Leave the Nest and Learn to Fly.
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I’m a mom of a soon-to-be high school senior and I’m already tearing up thinking about the “last high school moments” with her! Love this reminder to let it be about her and not me. Thank you for this!
I can totally relate. My only child, my daughter is leaving for college in August. Dorming but only a half hour away. I have been crying too! In Bed, Bath And Beyond, in a diner, at the freshman social to name a few. How I will manage without out her I don’t know yet, but I am excited for her. I am trying to tell her a million things to handle life when she is away. How much can you cram in her brain and is she listening? Be safe my girl… Think before doing something silly or that can harm you. I will always be here to catch you when you fall but I know you will soar! I love you to the moon and back.
I can totally relate. My daughter, only child leaves for college 80 minutes away. I am dreading the move in day. I also work at the high school she graduated. I am very excited and happy for her but dreading the loneliness. Constant reminders she has moved out.
My experience was quite the opposite. I was thrilled when my first graduated and left for college. I recalled all of my excitement when I went to college and wished that she would have as much fun and make life long friends as I did.
Crying became a major issue when my youngest left for college. He would also find new friends and have great times. I no longer would wonder, “How many kids will I be cooking for tonight?” Now it is always “just two”. I no longer have a house full of kids laughing and playing and eating everything in sight. I miss their energy.
Now I love their calls and visits just to hear the excitement and energy in their voices. They are beginning their next great adventure!
I have my oldest graduating in 2 weeks. No tears (I think) from me. I am excited and proud of him since just 10 short years ago in 2nd grade he couldn’t read, write or do simple subtraction. He may not be going to college but he has a full time job and a bright future.
I’m a mother of 3 wonderful grown children and 4 fabulous grand children and now find myself joining my 8 year younger sister through the frightening experience of twin graduating young men. As a single mom herself she has done an absolutely amazing job raising the boys and is giving this world 2 well grounded young men. Trevor will be leaving August 2nd for basic training in the Navy and Trenton will be starting classes at a local community college with cemminary school to become a music minister his main goal. As a sister and aunt I couldn’t be more proud of the three of them. My sister is a rock and will embrace these adventures tightly with Gods guidance. I love you all.
I thank you for sharing. I have a set of twins graduating high school in three days znd have often found myself fighting back tears. Thank you for the reminder of the importance of staying in the present and enjoying the moment, tears included.
Oh my GOD, you described me completely!! My son graduates in 16 days and will be leaving for college 2 days later – to play football OUT OF STATE!! I have cried everyday since the beginning of this school year and as the day’s get closer (graduation, taking him to school, etc), I can no longer brush the tears off and the lumps in my throat throughout the day. My sappy moments have turned into sobbing fits. There are times I think I’ve lost my mind and can’t fathom a day that when I’m not hurting. I also quit my job earlier this year and have 4 more children to get through the school with. Surely, it won’t be like this every single time one moves onto the next step. I’ve even started writing about it, mostly to sort my thoughts and try to identify what is causing the extreme emotions. I’ve decided to start a blog in hopes that I can help others as I help myself. Thank you for helping me see that I’m not alone and my fears and emotions are normal. This was a great post!!
All true!! My hardest moments was when my 3rd and last daughter moved out of her dorm into her own apartment. I knew she wasn’t coming back home to live with us.
When I got home and went to her bedroom, a deep wave of grief overwhelmed me. My body actually hurt for a few days. I was letting go of being a mom of an adolescent and transitioning to a mom, friend and confident when needed.
I’m still adjusting, I have fewer tears and I’m looking forward to the next chapters in life
Oh Laura–I can so relate about the wave of grief and body hurting for days! It’s such a strange season of mourning and adjustment–mixed with pride and excitement for our kids! I actually think this season of letting go epitomizes motherhood–we survive it by finding the joy for our kids, and ultimately it’s what helps us through our grief. I’ve discovered that the relationship with my kids as they’ve journeyed through college and into young adulthood has been the richest, sweetest, most fulfilling and joyous season of parenting I’ve ever known! It’s an adjustment…always a little bittersweet…but these next chapters are beautiful!!! Hang in there, my friend!
I cry – but for a different reason. I’m proud that my children are graduating — my oldest graduates college this week and my youngest graduates from high school next week — I cry because their daddy isn’t here to see their accomplishments. He hasn’t been here to see their football games, proms, first dates, moving in to dorms, first jobs or anything.
Their dad passed away suddenly when my children were only 10, 8 and 5. Every milestone they reach – college or work (my daughter graduates from college with a B.A in English, my middle son is an EMT working on becoming a paramedic, my youngest son has signed a scholarship to play college football), I cry because they don’t have their dad here to be with them.
I am married to a wonderful man who has been willing to help me raise them as his own.
Sheila I just wanted to reach out and let you know how deeply sorry I am for your loss. I can only begin to imagine the additional layer of grief and longing that is added to these milestones for you and your children. What an important reminder for those of us stuck in our own sadness about the simple fact of the passing of time, to realize that the story is very different for others. Thank you for reaching out and sharing. I am praying for you and your family that you find joy, peace, and grace in this season of graduations.
I loved this! I cried. Oh boy, did I ever cry! My daughter was (still is!) my world! We were so, so close. I cried all though her senior year also. I realized that “this will be the last….” or ” this is the last time we will do…..” and the loneliness had already set in. I didn’t cry at graduation so much since she was staying home and commuting her first year. Well, then the you know what hit the fan! My son decided to go to boarding school the next year, meaning that they would both be departing the mommy nest. I was fine until I watched them pack up things. We shopped for dorm rooms together and packed up their personals. The last night that they were home, while dropping my son off at a friends, it hit me like a ton of bricks! That lil Taylor Swift’s song, “Never Grow Up” came on. I cried the entire way home and stayed in the fetal position for over an hour plus in my kitchen. The pain of realization that they were leaving the next morning was debilitating. That morning I moved my son in at 7:30 am at Boarding School. I was positive never shedding a tear until we pulled out. Then we went home to gather my daughter’s belongings. We dropped her off four hours later two hours away from home. I behaved. I cried the entire way home with the pain of lonliness in my stomach. And that night, I cried again and again and again. Then like you said, it began to get easier and easier. Just like you, I realized that they are in good places making positive strides towards becoming THEM. At college graduation for my daughter three years later, I cried with pride. I cried with relief that she had become a strong independent, open-minded young woman. I also cried because the journey of education was done and that felt like I had completed what she and I had set to do – become a teacher! She cried when she saw me and ran with a hug like she never gave before! As her brother will graduate in three weeks, I am beyond excited on his next journey. He is equally as amazing, but more mature and ready. Boarding school created a young man that I wasn’t really aware of until it was Senior Year.
This young man is so ready to face Harvard and nail it! It isn’t about me, but they both realize that it still is in a crazy way…..they wait for me to cry with tears of joy as I watch them accomplish their goals. They say that they feel like that’s my way of saying, “You did it! You made me proud!” They aren’t embarrassed. Thank goodness! They “speak Momma” they say!
Wow! Thanks so much for writing such a great post! My oldest of 5 graduates in a couple weeks. Found myself crying a lot at the beginning of the year. Now things are such a whirlwind of trying to finish all the sr things she needs to complete. There is a time to be sad that she is leaving, but I do appreciate you giving the reminder be excited for them rather then focusing on myself. It’s a whole new chapter for her and I’m going to spend more time thinking about that and celebrating it with her.
Can’t relate to this at all. I practically yelped for joy when I saw my son stride across the stage to get his diploma. I can’t wait for him to take his skinny body and dirty socks off of my couch and into some sort of productive life outside of my house. Isn’t this what we aim for? Here’s to all of the Moms who survived extremely difficult teens, those who made our lives a living hell, the ones we can’t wait to see driving out of the driveway with a carful of junk, the ones for whom jail was always a possibility, the ones who gave us indigestion and anxiety, gray hair and a shortened life span. We are NOT sad to see them go, we are joyful and will be changing the locks at the first opportunity.
Sooo…Mary, I’m gonna go out on a limb here and guess you probably won’t be sending him a SoulFeed college care package! 🙂
But in all seriousness, despite the many moms who are grieving this season of letting go, there are also many other parents who are finding relief at the end of a very tough season of parenting their difficult teen. Regardless of where you are on the spectrum, we can all agree that parenting is not for the faint of heart! Praying for you and your son–and for all parents of kids in this boat. May you find healing and peace, and hopefully one day a new and healthy relationship with your kid once they’ve grown up and experienced “real” life!
I just had to Google advice for what I am feeling and am so blessed to have come across your blog/site. I literally cannot breathe. My oldest graduates in 24 days and her prom is this weekend. I have even begun to squabble with her just because I’m so emotional. She’s always been MY GIRL, the one who gets my humor, my quirks and is up for adventures. My youngest is the opposite (very headstrong and independent). I don’t know what I’ll do without MY GIRL!!! She’ll be two hours away. 😪
I read this when my (superachiever) son graduated and was heading off to college. Then came my not motivated (but smart) girl who didn’t know what she wanted. Fastforward 3 years, several bad decisions and she finally is enrolled in online junior college. A very different vibe. Count your blessings if your kid is off to a dorm in the fall.
Thank you. I really needed to read this. My only son is graduating in May and has already signed paperwork for his enlistment into the Army. Each time my husband or anyone for that matter brings up his graduation and enlistment, I simply hold back the tears and fall apart in private. The years have passed in a blink, I can’t turn back the clock but my heart is heavy as our son is turning into a man.
I’m excited for him and fear for him, I continue to pray that God watches over him, especially when he leaves for the Army. I know I’ll sob then too.
I’ve been stuck in the rut of grief. Mommy mourning.. I realized that is what I’m feeling and it’s been a god send to read your article. To have a new perspective on his achievement and future
Thank you for this.
Im depressed as my last child graduates in a few weeks. Its bad, please pray for me!