How To Say Goodbye: A Lesson From My Daughter

We weren’t assigned seats next to each other on the flight that would fly us to my daughter’s new home for the next four years. We both had aisle seats, which we usually prefer, one in front of the other.  But this time I desperately wanted/needed to sit by her.  I asked the lady seated next to my daughter if she would mind switching her window seat for my aisle seat. “You know, I really do prefer a window seat,” she said.

“Ok, then,” I said with my eyes to my daughter. “It’s not like I’m taking my daughter to college for the first time or anything,” I mumbled under my breath, and sat down feeling deflated. But without hesitation, my daughter started talking to me through the seat that separated us, sharing a funny story about something silly her “most adorable” camper did this summer. I leaned into the aisle, twisted my body and craned my neck to make eye contact with her. She hoisted her computer up and over the back of my seat to show me the countless pictures she had taken over the summer.

“I’m going to switch seats with you,” the woman said to me as she was already standing with her belongings in her hand.  “Thank, you. Thank you so much,” I said as I moved back to take the window seat next to my daughter.  We laughed and talked some more. We took a short jaunt down memory lane until she told me she was tired and done talking. I watched her close her eyes. I saw her as a little girl. The memories kept surfacing and resurfacing in my mind’s eye. The feelings of being pregnant with her, cradling her as a baby, clinging onto her hand when she learned to walk, holding her and stroking her hair when she cried, and even grabbing her arm a little too tightly a few times when I was upset with her came flooding back to me. In that moment, she leaned her head on my shoulder. I stroked her shiny, brown hair. A tsunami arose in my chest that came from the innermost depths of my soul and encompassed my entire being. The water came pouring out of my eyes. I truly did not know how I would make the tears stop.

How can this be the culmination of 18 years?!  How can it hurt so much even when she is doing what my husband and I have raised her to do? How can it be that the start of her next, exciting life chapter feels so excruciatingly painful for me? I leaned my head on her head and I took in her smell and the feeling of her presence. I knew that her presence in my life was about to change…pretty dramatically.

Over the past 19 years of life (actually, her 19th birthday is next week, and will be her first birthday that I won’t be with her), Sophie has taught me how to let go. Her independent spirit has given me a lot of practice in the art of saying goodbye, which has included: the ability to hold back my tears until she couldn’t see me (okay, I couldn’t always do that); give her that “last” hug, and then separate from her, by allowing her to pull away, and then turn and walk away from me, while I worked hard to turn myself away and walk the opposite direction (resisting the urge to turn back around and run to her to give her one more hug). I have done it countless times:  when she started school, skipped off to sleepovers, begged to go to a two-week sleep-away camp at the age of 8, took trips with her grandparents, boarded planes and buses to visit friends in other states, when she spent part of a summer in Israel and when she spent the past two entire summers working as a counselor at an overnight camp.

But even as the goodbyes didn’t seem to get much easier, I always knew she was coming home.

But not this time.

Ok, I know. That sounds extremely dramatic. And it is. Of course she will come home: over her school breaks and possibly over summer breaks (unless she continues to work at summer camp or another job out of state). But those times are the exception, rather than the rule. The majority of her days and nights will not be spent in my house, in her bed, with her siblings at our dinner table.  When I feel this sense of loss come over me, which sort of feels like someone took a scoop out of my heart with an ice cream scooper, I do have conversations with myself about perspective. My message to myself is, “Hey! Your daughter is alive and healthy and thriving!  She is going to college, not Juvie! This is not some kind of terrible tragedy. She is off to have a wonderful college experience! You should be so proud! You will see her, you will talk to her and you will be in each other’s lives!” Yes. Yes. Yes. And I am grateful. I really am.

But there are many different types of losses that we as mothers endure with our children, and I pray that we all experience these types of “letting go” losses and none that are truly catastrophic.  The letting go kind of loss is actually more about recalibrating the relationship than losing it. However, I have realized that I am not exactly sure how to make this relationship shift, within myself and between my daughter and me.

My relationship with my daughter has been one of the most pivotal and powerful relationships I have ever had in my life. It would take me tens of thousands of words to explain why, but as any mother understands, the human being who turns you into a mother, holds an extremely significant place in your heart.  And now I need to figure out how to do this relationship from afar.

As much as Sophie knows that she will always have a place in our home, I know her sights are now set elsewhere. And I am happy for her. And I know she is ready.

We spent a few days in Ann Arbor helping her get her room ready, schlepping back and forth to Target and Bed, Bath and Beyond, taking her and her friends to lunches and dinners. And then, when we knew it was time, she taught me how to say goodbye, yet again.

Last night we brought her to her dorm before heading back to our hotel to get some sleep before our flight home this morning.  We only got as far as the parking lot in front of her dorm. “You guys don’t have to come up. I am okay. Really,” she said in a very sincere way.  “O.k., Soph, I guess we have to do this,” I said. My husband and I each hugged her. And then she hugged us each one more time. I gave her the card I had written her earlier that day and told her to read it later. “I love you, Mom.” “Oh, I love you more than you will ever know, Soph.” “Take care of you, Sophie,” my husband said.

And then she did it. She pulled away, she turned and she walked slowly to door of her dorm. But I didn’t turn. I didn’t move. I stood there and watched her this time. I watched her walk confidently and happily to enter the next phase of her life. She opened the door to her dorm, and glanced back in our direction. Then the door shut.

And new doors opened…

goodbye soph


  1. angilea mcnae says:

    bawling right now!! major waterworks! Well done to the both of you! xo

  2. I know exactly what you’re going through. My daughter is just a little bit older, but she’s beginning her junior year of college. And I have a son, 22, who lives far, far away (Boston to Colorado). I raised my kids to be independent and strong, and I’m so proud of who they are. I wouldn’t want them to be clingy or fearful, to hesitate about life. But it’s still so hard to let go! Just remember to take it one day at a time- you don’t know what the future holds. My daughter is now going to school close to home, and she is very much a part of our life. I feel like she probably always will be, even when she’s married and has a family of her own. My son, I don’t know… my heart longs to be near him but I accept that he needs to live his own life. And then I’ve got two younger ones still at home, so life is still uncertain all around.
    You do the best you can as a parent, and it will all work out 🙂 Let yourself feel sad, but feel good about the future.

    • Thanks, Miriam. Sounds like we have a very similar family structure and mothering styles. Next in line for me is my son who will graduate in 2 years…oh my! And then I have an 11 and 9 year old. I know that I will always want to be near my children but I don’t know if that will be the reality. We have given them the wings and I wouldn’t be surprised if they use them to fly elsewhere. Wherever they land, I hope that we will always share a close connection.

      I do understand that over time, having my daughter out of the house (and soon my son) will be our new normal, but I am just trying to find the new ground underneath me…

      Thanks for your thoughtful and helpful response.

  3. Wow, such a moving post, Julie. My daughter is 8; she is also my first born. I can only imagine what that letting go must be like for you.

  4. Wow! I love that you shared this, Julie. I’m teary. 😦 Meanwhile, you look like you can also be skipping off to a dorm!

  5. Such a lovely and poignant description of that freshman dorm drop off moment. We have been their with our eldest sons and know the feeling, completely. Our youngest begin their senior year in high school next week – we do not want to rush this last year one little bit.

    • Thank you. We are now embarking on our oldest son’s junior year, which is of course the “the” year for college prep and can be so stressful. But like you, I just want to cherish these next two years that we have him at home and not get sucked into the college process mania! Enjoy your sons’ senior year!!! I know you both know too well how quickly that last year flies by!!

  6. says:

    OY ! The tears started welling up when I read the title! I’ve read many stories with similar content. But I have to admit.. Yours hit me like a punch to the gut. Memories of my children at various stages came bubbling to the surface. These flashes of their lives included, much to my surprise, a visual flash of ME and my reaction/ response, at each new ‘milestone’. In my minds eye, they seamlessly flowed to a visual of myself at parallel and pivotal stages of life. If I had only known then how my actions would be seared into my own mothers heart! I don’t recall being mean or rude at any ‘big’ goodbyes. But I also don’t recall being particularly grateful or tender. I’ve hated goodbyes all my life! I’ve always rushed through them to get to the other side.
    After reading this post, I have a new perspective :-). There are so many teaching moments as parents. I’ve never really given much thought to
    ” the art of saying goodbye”.
    We teach our kids that the “first impression they make will be a lasting impression”. So is the LAST impression. Thanks for the life lesson today. My oldest just started high school, my middle is in 8th grade in jr high, and my youngest has just begun 4th grade, still in elementary school.

  7. Okay Julie – I am just cooking in my kitchen, flipping between internet recipes, facebook, and then onto your blog. I just read this post and unraveled. You wrote so beautifully about your new chapter with Sophie, and like others that read it—I just went through a flood of memories of my now junior going through all her milestones. Undone, but inspired at the same time. What a wonderful thing to share… good thing I am chopping onions so I have an excuse for my red and teary eyes. Thank you!

    • And thank you, Jennifer. All I can say is amidst the craziness of college visits and discussions, and the stress of the “dreaded” junior year, just try embrace it all with Liza. Now having been through it, and still going through it by way of missing Sophie, I have a very different perspective with Jeremy because I know how fast it goes. Thanks for reading and for commenting! I am looking forward to reading your book!!

  8. You are so amazing! This is beautiful Jules!

    • Thanks, Nanc! I know you’ve been through it all! I remember watching you as a young mom and business owner, and being amazed by you! And now as a “more experienced” mom and business owner, I am even more amazed! Thanks for reading!

  9. Oh good God. It is almost as tho you looked into my heart to write this! I thought it was so very difficult for me because I have been a single mom for the last 15 years. It is nice to know that is not the case. once the kids go, it is just me. how in the world do I navigate that? I always knew a mother’s love was probably the most powerful thing out there, but it still amazes me how very painful it can be at times. I guess it is like losing someone you love. You never let go, but somehow you slowly stop crying all the time..

    • Julie, you will navigate when your kids leave…one day at a time. It’s hard. I still miss my daughter a ton. Some days, I feel a physical ache. But other days, when I talk to her and she sounds so happy, I am truly happy for her, and realize that this is what we raise them to do…leave us and be independent. The tears do slow down as time goes by but don’t completely stop (at least they haven’t for me). Thanks for reading and commenting!

  10. Elizabeth Smith says:

    Julie, this tore at my heart and brought tears to my eyes! Elina is 14, and the time is flying by so quickly. Another reminder that it goes so fast and to savor those moments and the time I have left with her. Then there are moments when I think she won’t move out soon enough and I have to remember that this time I have with her is limited and to spend it wisely. Thanks for the reminder that that moment of letting go is just around the corner it makes me want to love, hug and be with her as much as possible. Thanks!

    • Thanks, Buffy (my lifelong friend 🙂 ), it does go fast. Cherish whatever moments you can, but know that there will be times when you will realize that there is a reason she needs to go when it’s time. As much as I miss my daughter, it was time. And our relationship continues to be close and strong. Maybe even stronger. XO

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