My oldest daughter, Sarah, is in Japan this summer embarking on an adventure with her boyfriend, which could become a forever thing. She moved back “home” when Emma died, slipping into the basement apartment just as my youngest son, Ben, was moving out to live with his then girlfriend, now wife, Alex. In a very real way, we have never been “empty-nesters” until now. Although this may be temporary, it has caused me to reflect on the differences between losing a child to death and losing a child to life.
I lost a part of Emma to death, but so too have I lost a piece of each of my children to life. It is the way of the world. It’s painful in some ways, but in most ways it’s as it should be, and that makes it right. I will never think that Emma’s death was good – my husband still firmly believes that God made a BIG mistake. No healthy, happy, vivacious 19-year-old simply dies in her sleep. But I’ve come to accept that it was the unique way she left the nest. I’ve come to believe she lives on, taking our teachings and guidance and making them her own, on her own.
I also know that she lives on in my heart. I never really understood that before, but I do now. Emma is a part of everything I do. I carry her with me to every meeting at work, to every new sight I see in my travels, to every family event. I can talk to her any time I want, not just over Sunday dinner, which has become our weekly time with Ben and Alex. I don’t have to wait to talk with Emma, whereas talking with my daughter Sarah requires making a date to Skype across time zones. While my oldest son, Jason, is often at a concert or spear-heading some kind of protest, I don’t have to worry that I’m disturbing Emma. Sure, it’s different and I have to imagine what her answers might be. But she’s still with me in a way that matters.
It is much the same with my three living children. A huge part of me is happy that they’ve settled into happiness in a way that doesn’t involve me. But a part of me misses their youth, when Rod and I were their world. As with Emma, there’s a huge part of each of them that has become a memory. I miss them all as babies, as toddlers, as wide-eyed middle-schoolers starting to find their way. I miss them as teen-agers (well, kind of). I miss all their firsts, which I’ve tried to cement in my mind so that I never ever forget the feelings of pride and joy I shared with them for each accomplishment, for each major step forward.
I’ve often said that what I learned from losing Emma is as much about life as it is about death. One important thing to remember is to love your kids while you have them. They will one day leave your home and your relationship will change. Consider it an honor that they need you and cherish every moment you have with them, even the tough ones. Make memories together. Someday you’ll need the memories. Know your child – be able to tell their stories. Give them the gift of happiness and joy. Be proud of them and tell them why, even if it’s for a small thing, like how they light up your life with their smiles. Remember that one day, most of what they have of you will be memories, too. Do everything you can to make those memories good or meaningful, so they’ll carry them in their hearts and lean on them when they need to.