Anticipatory Grief: Leaving for College

Working Through Anticipatory Grief of Your Child Leaving for College

You watched with enthusiasm, and pure joy as your child walked across the graduation stage to receive her high school diploma. Next, came the praise, celebration, parties, cakes, and gifts! Then came the realization that your baby has suddenly become a young adult and is leaving you to start the next chapter of her life. Your heart that just moments ago was about to burst open with pride suddenly starts to ache, anticipating the loss it will feel when your child goes off to college. 

While you might feel alone, you are not. As parents prepare for their child to leave home, many experience anticipatory grief, which is grief that occurs prior to a loss or big transition. During this time, you might feel like you are riding a rollercoaster of emotions. One moment you might feel happy, and the next find yourself standing in a puddle of tears. At times, you may find yourself feeling guilty because you feel down instead of excited for your child. It is also common to feel anxious, angry, irritable, forgetful, or have difficulty concentrating. 

Though you might feel pretty crummy now, anticipatory grief helps us prepare for the emotional loss we are about to experience. For some parents, it provides them the opportunity to focus on their relationship with their child and address unresolved issues or guilt over parenting mistakes. For others, it gives them a reason to devote extra time and attention to their child, who is leaving home.

While you are working through this challenging time:


Give yourself permission to grieve.

While you are preparing for your child to leave for college, you might feel pressure to “put on a happy face.” However, grief is the natural and necessary process that allows us to work through our loss and accept our new reality. It also looks different for every person. If you feel that your grief is impacting your child then talk with them about it. You might discover that your child is also experiencing some of the same feelings.


Talk with someone who has gone through the experience of a child leaving for college.

When grieving, it is common to feel alone, and as though no one understands what you are going through. However, many parents know the anguish of having to wave goodbye to their children after dropping them off at their dorm room. Seek out supportive individuals who understand and are willing to listen and offer comfort.   


Plan for the next stage.

Though it might feel like you are saying goodbye to your child forever, the reality is you are saying goodbye to their daily physical presence. They are still an important part of your life, and you are an important part of theirs. To help ease the transition for both you and your child, make a plan for saying goodbye and one for keeping in touch. 


Work out the logistics for the day of drop off. To ensure that drop off day runs smoothly, work out details such as arrival time, parking, supplies for moving in, etc. By taking the stress out of drop-off, you will be able to focus more attention on you and your child’s emotional needs.


Create opportunities for connection. Today’s technology provides parents several ways to connect with children who are no longer living at home. For example, you might ask your child to text you daily to let you know they are healthy and safe. Or you might consider scheduling a weekly family dinner over Zoom or Google Meet. 


Moving your child to college can be both an exciting and emotionally difficult time. By giving yourself permission to grieve, talking with parents who have been through the same thing, and planning for what is next, you can ease the transition process and embrace the beginning of the new stage in your relationship with your child. 

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