I Can Only Imagine Your Loss: What One Professor Wants to Say to Parents as They Send Their Kids off to College

Once, after I left the wake for my college roommate’s brother who passed away much too early from a brain tumor, I turned to a friend who had accompanied me and said, with deep sadness and even a bit of fear, that I couldn’t imagine the pain my roommate and her family were experiencing. She turned to me and said, well don’t imagine it.

I’ve never been someone who could detach very well. In fact, I tend to attach. My empathy quotient is high. So, the other day, when I heard a piece on NPR about young adults leaving for college and the mourning many parents meet as they say that final goodbye outside the campus dorm, I started crying. My chest hurt. What a huge loss, I thought. A quiet house, an empty bedroom, a huge letting-go.

Then I thought: I don’t want my daughter to leave. I can hear my friend saying, Don’t imagine it. Do not go to that place.

Luckily, my daughter is entering 1st grade in a few days, so I have some time to prepare for her departure. I started to realize, however, that I have a role to play in this September exodus. As kids are leaving their parents homes, they’re entering my classroom as students. I get to see them on the other side, on their first day of class, as they transition to adulthood. I don’t, for better and for worse, get to talk to their parents. This is what I want to say to the people who raised them:

I admire you. I am in the throes of raising a young child, and IT IS HARD. I know you’ve already hit so many of the milestones I worry about, and you’ve gotten your kids to this place: college. You’ve been with them when they were sick, when they didn’t get invited, when they lost the game, when they forgot their homework. I bet you celebrated when they aced the test, made the team, tried their best, showed respect to others. In fact, so many of you are my heroes. I know people say that anyone can be a parent, but not everyone can be a committed, engaged parent.

I also want you to know that I, and the majority of the colleagues I know, love teaching. You might hear us complain about Millennials, helicopter parents, and the low wages many faculty are paid, but here’s the thing we don’t often say: your kids are important to us. Let me speak for myself and go one step further: I learn from your kids. I am better because of your kids. I care about your kids. When one of your kids insults me, or annoys me, I search for patience and remind myself of you. I think: this student has a parent who loves him. This student has a parent who tried hard to get her here. This student has a parent who is worrying about him right now. Parents, you may think I don’t think about you, but I do. I am learning about the deep love and heartbreaking effort it takes to raise a child, so believe me, when I am teaching these students, I am aware that they are not a number or a body filling a seat in my classroom. They are your lives.

I imagine, as you experience excitement, pride, concern, and loss, that you feel as though you are sending your child off into the world alone. Know that there are thousands of us out there, in the form of thoughtful staff and faculty, waiting on the other side of your goodbye. We can’t parent your kids, but we can care about them.