My Son Left For 13 Weeks Of Basic Training & The Depth Of My Grief Surprised Me

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USMC basic training, a mom's grief
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Roughly three weeks ago, my only son, my youngest child, shipped out for boot camp to become a Marine.  

I consider myself a “tough cookie”, a strong woman, driven, capable and prepared for anything and everything that comes my way — but boy was I wrong!

Not only did this event shake me to my core, but I realized that when it comes to my children, I may be a huge marshmallow.  

I had been preparing myself mentally for his departure for quite some time, or so I thought I had, but when the day finally hit, I was so anxious and sad, I could hardly sit still. After all, I wouldn't be able to see him for months while he was in quarantine and basic training. 

We dropped him off at a hotel on a Sunday evening so he could check in at the local MEPS (Military Entrance Processing Station) at 4 a.m. After that, he would be shuttled to the airport to catch a plane to California.  

On the way to the hotel I was doing my best, trying to talk with him, be upbeat and positive, but I was just hiding my unbelievable gut-wrenching sadness. My son’s anxiety was palpable. This poor kid was so nervous and scared, that my heart felt like it was breaking into a million pieces. 

This is one thing that people don’t tell you about being a mom. You feel for them so deeply that it physically hurts when your kids are hurt, sad, scared, or anxious.

But I gave it my all, I attempted to stay strong.  

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I tried so hard to not break down and cry in front of him because in my mind, I thought it wouldn’t be fair for me to be weepy while he was having his own feelings of sadness and anxiety from leaving his home, his family, his friends. He certainly didn’t need to feel my pain too!  

But at the last second, when giving him his final goodbye hug, I broke down. I couldn’t stop it.

I couldn’t stop the feelings of sadness to say goodbye to my baby, my boy. The anguish swept through me like a tidal wave.  

I quickly jumped back into the car. Thank goodness my husband was along to drive home, because I started uncontrollably sobbing. I was wracked with grief. I couldn’t believe the wave of pain and sadness rolling through me.  

Who was this person crying? Why was I so grief-stricken?

I spent that evening and the next two days crying, just consumed with sadness. I finally — quite literally — made myself get up and I got moving.  

I started by cleaning out my son’s car. It was a mess (to say the least), so the tedium of detailing it not only made me feel closer to him but gave me some purpose. To be quite honest, it just gave me something to do.  

The next day, I cleaned his room, and I had the same experience: I felt closer to him and I was busy. While keeping myself “busy”, something unexpectedly happened. With everything I was doing - cleaning his car, cleaning his room - I felt like I was, in part, erasing him and that realization shook me to the core.  

It was hard enough that he was gone, and my contact would be so limited, but now I felt like I was literally erasing him from my home. 

One might read this and think I am not deeply honored that my son joined the USMC, so let me be clear, I am beyond proud of my son for making this choice to serve his country and be a part of something bigger than himself. 

My grief at not being able to see him or contact him for so long, or the emotions associated with him growing up and never again being the same little kid who lived in my house don’t undermine my respect for his choice and for the USMC itself.

The act of serving our country is not only self-less, but incredibly brave and there are no words to describe the feeling of pride I have for my son.     

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He left our home in Minnesota and had to go into a 2-week quarantine in California before starting the 13 weeks of grueling basic training. In that 13 week period, we wouldn't be able to speak with him at all.

For those not familiar, when in boot camp, recruits cannot speak to anyone. They can receive letters from home, but that is it. All family and community ties are, in a word, severed. That's quite a shock for a mother.

During the quarantine period I could speak with him on his hotel phone for a few minutes each evening, which was great, but those conversations usually consisted of him telling me about the bad food and how utterly bored he was in isolation. But it was awesome to be able to connect with him and hear his voice every day.

Currently, my son is in basic training in San Diego. My sadness resurfaced and strengthened yet again, knowing now, unequivocally, that I would not speak to him for a full 13 weeks.

I never considered myself a “helicopter mom”, if fact, quite the opposite — I let my kids fall, get hurt, get dirty, and gave them choices. Choices to make mistakes and learn from them. I knew where my kids were, most of the time, and didn’t hover or follow them constantly on “find my iPhone”.  

However, when my son left for basic training, I quickly realized what it was like to no longer have access or the availability to connect with my son. We live in a world with an all-access pass to our kids: facetime, texting, phone calls, emails, you name it, we can always connect.  

And then, one day, it’s gone, severed.

This disconnection to my son has been so complete, a real loss. It wasn’t like he was moving away or going to college, where you can still call and Facetime or do family Zoom calls. It was nothingness and it left me feeling utterly lost.

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I miss my son so completely, to the core of my being, that there are moments each day that I feel like I cannot take a deep breath. It is like this weight of sadness is literally pressing down on my chest. 

I miss his laugh, his beautiful smile, the witty banter between him and my husband. I miss the moody teenager that shuffled through the house grunting his disapproval of whatever was happening in his life at that moment.

 I miss the 2am making of chicken strips. I miss the loud (and I mean loud) middle of the night on-line gaming with his friends. I miss him with my whole heart — I just miss his presence.

I find that it is the quiet that is the most difficult.

Quiet mornings in the office, quiet evenings, the quiet while lying in bed at night, walking through the house and feeling the stillness. The quiet becomes almost suffocating. The quiet is deafening. These times are the most difficult. I cry quietly in these moments, by myself.  

It is grief, through and through.  

I realized somewhere in this process, that I was grieving and there was indeed a sense of loss. I am grieving the son that has left. Because in all honesty, while he will return a stronger and more confident man, he will no longer be the boy who left three weeks ago.

I find reminders of him throughout the house, in every room; his toothbrush in the bathroom, his coat in the closet, his water bottle in the kitchen, and each time I am reminded of him comes a fresh wave of sadness. I miss him with a new sense of depth I didn’t think was there, and it’s still so raw. 

Not only was I feeling lost and sad, but I started having feelings of complete and utter insecurity.

Was I a good enough mom? Did I do everything I should have or could have to prepare him for this journey? Was I present? Should I have done this or that differently? I think we have all asked these questions of ourselves as mothers. 

Thankfully I have a husband and a best friend who keep me in check when I go off the rails and indulge in feelings of self-doubt. I hope other moms have a support system at the ready for whenever we question our abilities - because we are not alone in doubting ourselves!  

I still, to this day, have not yet sorted his closet, his personal items and his clothes — those remain in their current state and they will probably stay that way until we know where he will eventually be stationed. It gives me some peace knowing that his personal things are still there, he is still there, he is not erased.   

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My wish is that when we moms tell each other about our insecurities and overwhelming moments of sadness, instead of saying; “you’ll get through this” or “you should be proud” or “this is an adventure for him”, we instead say things like; “I am so sorry, this must be really hard for you”.  

Let’s acknowledge the pain and allow each other to just feel. We should hear each other and support one another. Our job isn’t to fix things, just be there, be present, lean in and listen. 

This is my journey and I have learned that while I am not the tough cookie I once thought I was, I am not a marshmallow either. 

I am brave and strong, and I have a much bigger heart than I have ever given myself credit for. 

I also realized that this journey is one I can share with other moms out there and if I can contribute in some way to the community and spirit of motherhood, then I have done something worthwhile.  

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Tanya Miller-Winn is a wife and a mother of two children: a 20-year-old daughter who is in college, and an 18-year-old son who is in basic training for the USMC. She holds an MBA and works in manufacturing as Director of Operations. 

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