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Dropping Off My Daughter at College Was More Than Just 'Empty Nester' Anxiety

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As the day dawned Friday morning it finally dawned on me how little time I had left with my daughter Gracen before the fall semester began at John Brown University.

I sucked in a shallow breath. Dread settled deep within.

The funny thing is, I’d been aware of this encroaching date all along. I just refused to think about it. I gave it an intellectual nod when the thought of her back-to-school date came up and quickly pushed it out of my mind.

But thoughts like those have a way of festering beneath the surface of one’s psyche. I’d noticed the signs—typical stress reactions for me. Nights spent reading that stretched into the wee hours of the morning or even until daybreak, the soreness at the tip of my tongue from rubbing it on the inside of my lower front teeth, the itchy feeling beneath my skin, a desire to write followed by frustration swelling when I was unable to put anything down on paper as my mind flit from one concern to the next.

Creeping anxiety.

But it wasn’t until this morning that I counted the remaining days. Today, Saturday and Sunday. Move-in day—Monday afternoon. Then I will turn my back once again and hold my breath waiting and hoping.

Waiting for that phone call.

Hoping it doesn’t come.

You know, the one where a university official calls to tell me Gracen’s been hurt.

Or worse.

Oh yes, “worse” is always on my mind.

Then again maybe you don’t know.

Maybe after you dropped your child off at college your worries were vastly different from mine. Maybe you fret over poor judgment, too much freedom, a lack of academic commitment or maybe you are more concerned about the echoing silence that will greet you when you once again cross the threshold of your home.

All those things bother me too, especially the silence, but mostly because I fear it could be permanent—that our last hug might really be the last hug—ever. This thought lurks.

The other lurking thoughts are regrets. Regrets for missed opportunities. Really for forfeited opportunities. Those I consciously chose to skip for reasons related to anxiety and depression. I’m ashamed to admit it.

And that’s really it, I think. Fear and shame constantly assail my heart and soul.

I should be handling this better. I should be healing instead of falling apart more and more as time goes by. I should be able to make decisions. I should be less afraid of people and social situations. What does it matter what anyone else thinks? I should quit escaping into fiction.

I should, I should, I should, I should not. And every undistracted minute is filled with “shoulds,” “should nots” and fear—because anxiety is just a synonym for fear.

She’s sleeping late. Is she breathing? Is she safe in the shower? Will she be safe when she returns to school?

Not safe from others. Not safe from impulsive decisions or risky behavior, but safe getting out of bed, getting in the shower, getting dressed in the morning. Safe doing all the simple tasks we routinely do without thought.

Fiction and sleep are the two activities that shut out the shoulds, should nots and fear.

But there are times when I can’t focus to read or write and sleep eludes me and that itchy, tingling feeling under my skin about drives me “insane.” I find myself frantic for some escape. Trapped inside this human shell while inwardly keen for release.

But there will be no escape for me. Just repeated hopping up to leave the security of my bedroom for some distraction only to find the available distractions (talk, TV and pets) annoying so I flee back to my bedroom. A shower maybe, but the pounding water doesn’t shut out my thoughts. A drive…

To the crosses at the roadside where my daughters Bethany and Katie were killed…

Only to feel frustration rise.

Oh to be able to rip off the top my head and let all the painful, toxic thoughts and emotions escape!

I don’t know how to do this, Lord! I don’t know what to do, let alone how to do it. I spin in circles like a Tasmanian devil and hear only silence from You. Unbearable silence. I’m defeated by the truth that there is no fixing this. There are no good answers. No paths without pain. No solutions whatsoever. I need You to speak, to step in, to do something—something I can see—something that won’t hurt. Something that reveals a purpose for this madness.

Something that carries me through Friday, Saturday, Sunday and Monday. Something that prepares me for the silence I’ll return home to and wake up to on Tuesday morning. Something other than the dread of that phone call coming or the remaining pieces of my life, shattering at my feet.

I just need…


If you or a loved one is affected by child loss, you can find grieving resources at The Grief Toolbox.

If you or someone you know needs help, visit our suicide prevention resources page.

If you need support right now, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255 or text “START” to 741-741.

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Thinkstock photo via BCGraphix.

Originally published: February 27, 2017
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