Grief, Empty Nest, and My Relentless Longing for the Past

My girls in 2008, ages 4 and 7 (photo by author)

here is a moment each morning when, having just filled the bird feeders with black oil sunflower seed, I walk back toward my house, and feel the loss anew.

My daughter is gone.

I turn and stare at the feeders and fall into nothingness.

I remember that a swingset once stood near the spot where the feeders hang and a green sandbox (shaped like a turtle) sat beside it. I remember that a tetherball hung from a pole, askew in the hard ground. I remember the little girls who used to knock it around, laughing and running in circles.

Now there are only the feeders in the overgrown yard. There are three lawn chairs instead of four. The mornings are quiet — all my own — the way I’d once wished it would be when little feet rose at dawn, bringing little mouths to my bedside for their morning hugs and breakfast.

The dog nudges my leg, calling me back to the present.

I don’t know what to do with my aging self.

I don’t know how to care about the mornings again, beyond the first hour or so when I feed the cats and the dog, then replenish the bird feeders.

This must be what people call a mid-life crisis, except there is no urgency for me, no need to reinvent myself, or embrace an exciting opportunity for rebirth.

I long for them — the girls as they were. I ache and burn and pine for the days I was up to my neck in Barbie dolls and stuffed animals. The pull of this yearning is so strong, that I feel my mind drift back again, to a cherished face clutching a cherished toy.

She is faded at the edges, except in the crisp digital photos that show the lapis blue of her eyes. Her childhood echoes around me as I move through the house where she grew up. My heart moves in the direction of the past, dancing with her 6-year-old self on the living room rug, laughing as we chase the backyard chickens (now long gone) in the yard.

It’s the quiet that pulls me back this time — the empty, endless, heavy silence that fills the room where I write. It was her room once.

My body is changing. The cycles that were once so predictable are no longer consistent. They’ve fallen out of sync, sometimes ending too soon and sometimes stretching longer than they ever have. When the latter happens, I wonder if I’ve had my last period, lost my last egg.

I once yearned for menopause. I’d had my kids, after all. My family was complete. How nice it seemed to not have to worry about this singular inconvenience of womanhood — periods, hygiene, cramps, and the waves of rage and sadness that come as estrogen and progesterone plummet.

Yet now it feels like another loss, made worse by the death of the child that was my first baby. I am losing the part of me that created her, the part of me that kept us connected from conception to birth to child and…

I am pulled back again, a young me with brighter eyes and darker hair holding my tiny baby.

The first night she was home, we were both so scared of doing something wrong. We’d changed her diaper clumsily, taking too long, and she’d screamed and screamed.

My husband wept over the baby as she wailed her red-faced cries, “This is so hard,” he’d said. I’d scrambled for the wipes and the cream and the clean diaper, scrambled to wrap her up again, make her warm, stop her tears.

“Yes,” I agreed. He hadn’t meant changing the diaper was hard. He’d meant keeping her safe and stopping her tears — that was the hard part.

My phone buzzes, pulling me back to the silence of my lonely morning.

When I talk about my younger daughter, I have to force myself not to say, “my surviving daughter.” It is macabre and unfair to label her this way. I am trying to train my brain to simply think of her as “my daughter” as most people do when talking about their children.

People luckier than me, I think, but I don’t let myself get lost in another memory, even though the temptation to think of the girls as they once were is a strong one.

Growing older will be harder for me than I thought it would be. Each year pulls me farther away from those two little girls.

I take some comfort in knowing that this would’ve happened anyway, even if one of my daughters hadn’t died. Time would have continued its impervious, dispassionate march forward and those little girls would have faded from everyone’s memories but mine and my husband’s. This is exactly as it should be.

The challenge I’m facing now is not how to accept that these are the last few years of active motherhood, because I do accept this. I want my (surviving) daughter to experience everything she possibly can — travel, love, college, self-discovery, the joy of that first apartment, driving on open roads with the windows down and the music blasting far, far, far away from the place where she grew up.

No, the challenge is not accepting my impending empty nest. For me, the challenge is trying to integrate the memory of my girls as they once were into the the present, so that I am no longer existing in both worlds.

How do I combine the past with the present and not lose my connection with my dead child?

Sometimes I imagine glimpses of my future self. They shimmer at the edges of my consciousness and give me hope.

My daughter — coming to visit with a smile on her face as she introduces me to someone she dearly loves.

This house — the place where my family began, where my children played and (mostly) grew up— sold to a young family starting their own journey.

My new house (my last house) somewhere not far from here, surrounded by trees with a generous porch where I sit and get to know the resident birds as I read in the warm sun.

And, perhaps much farther down the road, when my hair has gone grey and I’m fully ensconced in the final season of my life, there will be a new little family for me to love.

I feel myself getting lost in a new memory, one that’s not yet realized. My daughter, now a grown woman, places a tiny baby in my arms and says with exhaustion and pride, “Hello, little one, meet your Grandma.”

Occasional poet. Writer of sad essays. Novelist. Birder and amateur photographer. I enjoy trees.

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