I spent an hour yesterday with a friend painting signs for our daughter’s high school graduation. We painted a couple signs with inside jokes, and one for the back of the car that says, “Just graduated.”
We didn’t cry. Even though our girls have been friends since the fourth grade. Even though they are both moving out the house for the first time in just a few months. Even though they are no longer the round-cheeked little stinkers that we remember them to be.
I am finding, to my surprise, that it is possible for my kids’ big transitions to be almost unadulteratedly joyous. I expected to be mourning.
I anticipated these bad feelings because of early childhood experiences. I knew that my own mother was proud of me and she served me with food, drink and decorations on special days. But I also felt her grief surrounding big days in my life: graduations, my wedding, and “big” birthdays. I expected to fight my own grief when my kids turned sixteen or graduated. But I didn't, and I don't.
I have recently learned about hardships my own mama went through when my brother and I were very young, circumstances that would have robbed her peace and presence in those early years. And so suddenly it makes sense that moments which signaled we were growing up would trigger sadness; perhaps she wanted a do-over of some earlier days, and I'm flooded with compassion for her. I’ve done some work with my therapist about those bittersweet memories, and the insights we've uncovered helps me be present for my kids’ moments, rather than showing up at their promotion ceremonies carrying my baggage.
My friends, I think this is worth looking at in each of our lives: How do we feel around occasions that are “supposed” to be happy?
Despite what many of us were told about the dangers of steering by our emotions, I believe that emotions always have an origin. For many people, annual traditions and celebrations become anniversaries of pain: marking moments of loss or disappointment. If you find yourself anxious, depressed, sad, angry, or grief-stricken at the same time every year, on your birthday, at the holidays, or every time your child has a big event, journal about, talk to your friends about, pray about, and ultimately, speak to a professional counselor about it.
Because milestones aren’t made for mourning. We can choose to heal these emotions and have more joy going forward. Christmas and Father's Day are coming every year. Our kids will keep getting older. And though we will always have to celebrate while suffering is happening simultaneously in the world, celebrations don’t have to, in themselves, be the cause for suffering. Both processing emotions about the past and changing the way we mark milestones in the present can be transformative!
When the big moments trigger regret about the past, we can find hope for the future.
Rather than feeling anger, we can find forgiveness.
In place of anxiety, we can discovery peace and presence.
None of this will be accomplished by stuffing or ignoring what we feel. And this goes for present feelings as well as past triggers. I confess I barely slept last night from excitement, and I need to be present to my needs today with food, water, moderating caffeine and – honestly—talking to my sponsor. I also feel nostalgia, and anxiety about getting all the family into their seats at graduation and making our dinner reservations on time.
But I’m not living in regret, nor obsessing about the future. On the long, lone flight back from Missouri in August, I’m sure there will be tears. But I trust God to be present with me in that natural grief then.
So today, I’m not in mourning. I’m celebrating.