Getting Real About Empty Nest Grief | What’s Normal, What’s Not

Empty Nest Blessed by Suzy Mighell

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I am not a professional counselor, but as someone who has talked to hundreds of empty nesters and dealt with the transition myself, I do know a few things about empty nest grief. I get hundreds of direct messages and emails from empty nesters every month asking me if what they’re feeling is “normal.” First of all, let me say that “normal” is a terrible word! But since that’s the word that most people use, for this post, that’s the word I’m going to use too. Today I’m giving you my opinion, based on my experience, and I’m giving it to you straight.

Empty Nest Grief: What’s “Normal”

1.Bewilderment – Where did the time go? How could my child be this old already? How did we get here? Someone once said that the days are long, but the years are short. Feeling this way is normal.

2. Regret – It’s normal to think back on the years gone by and wish you’d done things differently. Many of us regret parenting decisions we made, and think, “If only I’d _________________.” Fill in that blank with worked less, been stricter, been more supportive, etc. We all feel that way sometimes! When I was down in Austin moving my 26-year-old son into his new apartment last weekend, I started mentally beating myself up that I hadn’t done a better job of teaching him to clean and cook. Remember that you did the best you could, and let it go.

3. Loss – With kids in the house, there was always somebody who needed food, clean clothes, a listening ear, or even a hug. In the empty nest, many moms feel like no one needs them anymore and they’ve lost their purpose. This feeling is normal and is especially acute with single moms or parents of only children. I’m so sorry. We have all been there. The acute pain will abate over time, I promise.

4. Identity Crisis – Even if you have a high-powered career or other commitments that kept you busy, the day you gave birth being a mother became your primary identity. That’s a good thing, and it means that you were a devoted and loving mom! It’s normal to wonder who you are now that you’re not needed as a mom on a day-to-day basis.

5. Sadness and Tears – Most of the emails I get are from new empty nesters who are stunned by the sheer weight of the grief they feel. Even though they knew the empty nest was coming, the strong emotions still threw them for a loop. Feeling sad and crying is normal. Crying is a proven stress reliever and a healthy expression of emotion. It’s okay to cry. I can remember sitting in my son’s room and sobbing the day after he left. Lots of moms tell me they’ve done this.

6. Worry – It’s normal to worry about your kids once they’re gone. Will they be able to take care of themselves on their own? Do they have the necessary skills to adult successfully? Will they stay safe and make good decisions? Trust that you’ve raised them well, and that they’ll remember all of your words of warning. I pray faithfully for my kids, and that’s a big help.

7. Mixed Emotions – Parenting is basically the business of working yourself out of a job. When your child graduates from high school and goes off to college, it’s cause for celebration. (Good job! This is what you’ve been working toward!) But empty nest grief runs parallel to these celebratory feelings. It’s normal to feel confused by this!

8. A Sense of Relief – Perhaps without even realizing it, your life has been focused on your children’s emotional, physical and psychological needs. It’s normal to feel a sense of relief and even newfound energy as you look forward. Don’t feel guilty about this!

9. Weirdly Excited – Life as an empty nester can be invigorating! It’s normal to have a “midlife reawakening” of sorts and question everything: your relationships, your work, how you spend your leisure time, etc.

10. Ebbs and Flows – Anyone who has experienced loss relates to the normal ebb and flow of grief. One of the things no one talks about in the empty nest is that you’ll feel a resurgence of empty nest grief every time they come home for a visit and leave again. It’s okay. I promise that it won’t be as bad as it was initially, but it will be there.

Empty Nest Grief: What’s Not “Normal”

1. Extended Time Spent in Active Mourning – As with any type of grief, it’s challenging to pinpoint a typical, healthy time frame for the feelings of sadness to begin to dissipate somewhat. In my experience, if you’re worried that your sadness, feelings of loss, regret and grief have overtaken you for too long, listen to that voice and seek help. Being unable to stop crying is not normal.

2. Debilitating Depression – If you are predisposed to depression, empty nest grief can trigger it. If you find that you cannot get out of bed, shower, or resume activities you enjoy, or if you’re abusing substances like alcohol to cope, you need to seek help immediately. This is not normal. (But probably more common than you think.)

3. Feeling Overwhelmed – All the possibilities and choices about what’s next can be overwhelming and paralyzing. This is not normal if it goes on too long. It takes time to figure out what’s next. Give it the time it is due, but do move forward.

4. Getting “Stuck” – Some of the saddest emails I get are from women who feel like they’re “stuck” in empty nest grief even years after their nests have emptied. This is not normalThe empty nest is a season of life, just like the season of mothering young children (Remember the exhaustion?) or caring for aging parents. There should be some degree of moving ahead in life and learning and growing. If there isn’t, it’s time to get help.

5. Feelings of Inadequacy – Just because you’re not involved in day-to-day mothering activities, you will continue to parent your children as they move toward adulthood. Although you may feel inadequate at first — learning to parent adult children requires an entirely new outlook and skill set — you can do it, Mama! It’s not normal or healthy to feel inadequate and to continue to parent the way you always have. You might want to check out some of the articles I’ve written on this topic to get started on this journey.

 

Empty Nest Blessed readers have been asking me to write a post like this for some time, but I kept putting it off! The thought of telling other people what they’re feeling is “normal” or “not normal” was just too scary! After all, we’re all different, and that means we’ll all have different experiences when it comes to adjusting to the empty nest. I started Empty Nest Blessed to bless, encourage, and inspire women as they seek to move forward in the empty nest season of life, and I don’t want to discourage anyone! That said, a big part of moving forward in the empty nest is facing your fears! So, I finally worked up my courage, and after much thought and prayer, I decided to share my opinions. My prayer is that this post will help and encourage those of you who are trying to assess where you are on the empty nest grief continuum and gently nudge you forward as you look toward the future. 🙂

I’d love to know your thoughts! Please leave me a comment and let me know how your experience matched up to what I identified as “normal” or “not normal.” Most people tell me that they read not only my posts, but also all of the comments that follow from my wise readers! Please share your thoughts if you think they could bless someone, and feel free to share this post if you think it could help others. (You can use the share buttons below.)

Blessings,

 

 

 

Photo by Megan Weaver.
Makeup by Bebe Tran.

 

 

 

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Suzy Mighell

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34 Comments

  1. Thank you so much for sharing this, Suzy! You were the very first blog I came across when I was weeks away from having an empty nest. I believe it was all in God’s perfect plan because he knew I needed someone who was experienced, had a loving heart for others, and who would gently remind us to look to Him for all our needs.
    #10 Ebbs and Flows speaks particularly loud to me since my son just left last week for this sophomore year. #4 Identity Crisis UGH!! What can I say?!?!? I’ve been seeking God on the daily to help me see my purpose and what is next for me.
    You look beautiful, as always, in these pictures! :))

    1. Stephanie,
      What a sweet comment! Thank you so much for taking the time to reach out and share your story. So many of the things we feel are universal! I hope it encourages others just to know that what they’re going through is typical and they ARE going to be okay! If your son just left last week you’re struggling, of course. I’m so sorry. I relate. When we moved Connor into his apartment last weekend after having him home to study for the Bar Exam all summer, I cried because I thought, this is REALLY it. He’s a grown man. Feelings are feelings, and sometimes bringing logic to them just makes you feel worse because you think you should be having them! I’ve learned just to let them wash over me and accept those ebbs and flows as they come. (But it’s challenging!) As far as the identity crisis goes, I would encourage you to step out and give something a try, even if you’re not 100% sure it’s the exact perfect fit for you. I hear from a lot of moms who end up getting stuck because they waited so long for the PERFECT thing, and they didn’t move forward to try things. They waited so long for perfect that they missed some great opportunities to serve others and be a blessing, as well as to give their lives purpose. You sound so wonderful, Stephanie, and I don’t want you to deprive the world of YOU for too long! The Lord has big plans for you!!! xoxo Suzy

  2. Hi, I am a single mom who has just sent her only child off to college three weeks ago. I came across your website a few weeks ago and it has helped me immensely! This article was a great comfort! I am working my way through most of the “normals” now and it is so comforting to know that my feelings are for the most part normal. It is a life stage, I will find the way to go from Mom and Dad to Linda again. Thank You!

    1. Linda,
      Thanks so much for sharing your story. I’m so sorry that you are hurting, but I understand! I’m just happy that you found your way here. You were Linda before you were “Mom” and it’s going to take some time to get in touch with Linda and remember who she was (also, she’s probably changed and grown over the years, so you’ll have to get to know the updated version of her!). Give yourself the time it’s due. It’s definitely NOT like turning on a light switch, but, like true grief, it takes time to work through it and move forward. Know that single moms tend to have the most challenging time with this adjustment, and give yourself extra grace and care. Big hugs from me, sweet Mama. xoxo Suzy

  3. #10. Ebbs and flows is my biggest struggle. I have a daughter who calls infrequently, texts infrequently, visits rarely and inconsistently. We did not part on good terms. She left with a boyfriend. She assimilates many (almost all) of his thoughts, habits, perspectives – including “parents are people you only visit on Christmas and your birthday”. So when she visits or calls, I maintain a positive attitude, listen a lot, give next to no advice unless asked, and then crash when she when we part. I feel like I start the grief process all over again. I’ve done this so many times that I have to work hard not to dread her coming. I look for ways to forgets she exists when she’s gone and strengthen myself via the Lord in between contacts. My other children don’t present this issue.

    Thanks for writing this post. Hopefully everyone can identify with one or two of these items and be helped.

    So glad I found your blog. It has helped me redirect when necessary and keep my focus on good things. I refer all my new empty nest friends to it.

    Suzanne

    1. Suzanne,
      It means so much to me that you opened up and shared your struggle. Thank you. I am so sorry for your pain. Please comfort yourself by knowing that you did the best you could. The fact that your relationship with your other children is good means that you were (and continue to be) a loving mom. I know they cherish you. I think the way you are handling the situation with your daughter is exactly right and I hope you continue to be faithful in doing the right thing with her. Keep praying for her! I suspect she will really need you at some point and the fact that you’ve been faithful and consistent in your relationship sends the message to her that you are a person who can be counted on when the road gets difficult. I will be praying for you!
      Thank you for your kind words about Empty Nest Blessed. Referring other people this way is the nicest compliment you could ever give me. Big hugs from me, sweet Mama. xoxo Suzy

  4. I really loved this post, Suzy. Thanks for writing it. I think you are spot-on in your categories of “normal” and “not normal” and appreciate your courage and wisdom in urging mothers caught in a down-ward spiral of grief to seek resources and counseling. For me, the ebbs and flows has been the hardest part of being an empty-nester. Both of my mid-twenties children live a few states away and there are always a few tears after our visits. My son in particular is very social, up-beat and loves to cook with me in the kitchen. I always feel sad for a few days after our visits and my husband (his step-father) has come to expect it and is very supportive. I talk and text with my children regularly and we set up dates to “face time” which is fun. I do work part-time, but it was not quite enough to fill my empty-nest as my husband is very engaged with his career. Now I insist on weekly dinner dates and monthly outings (concerts, plays, hikes, etc.) — this has enhanced our relationship tremendously and my husband has become actively engaged in our dates, finding new restaurants to try and things to do. I also agree that you do not stop being a mother when your children leave home. It is quite a pleasure to discuss “adult” topics with your children like their 401ks, whether they should join a health club or just keep running on their own, as well as to talk about the issues of the day in a calm, reasonable manner. Love your blog, Suzy.

    1. Laura, I LOVED everything about your encouraging comment. I think we’re all united about the ebb and flow of empty nest grief – it’s the worst, for sure! I think you sound like a great mom and I know your adult kids must cherish you so much! The way you’ve nurtured your marriage and been so intentional is a great example for all of us! Thank you for the inspiration. I’m always grateful for your words of wisdom. Thank you for sharing. You are such a gift to me! Thank you for being such a faithful reader and commenter! xoxo Suzy

  5. I’m so glad you came out of your comfort zone and wrote this post. I think more women need to see the not normals so that it gives them a sense of what they are missing. If we’re not learning and growing in our new stage of life, then what are we doing? That really is the benchmark for normal vs. not.

    Thanks for sharing. This resonated and I will share with others.

    1. Nylse,
      Thank you for your comment! Wise as always, and I so agree that learning and growing must be the hallmarks of this next phase. It does take time, though, to move forward after the intense emotions of those first days and even months of becoming an empty nester. It’s so different for everyone, but my heart’s desire is to help gently nudge those who are “stuck” or floundering to move forward and learn and grow. I always love it when you leave me a comment! Thanks again. xoxo Suzy

  6. Thank you Suzy for very insightful post. I find your subject very timely since we just dropped off our two daughters (A sophomore and a senior) at college two weeks ago. Although it is always difficult to say goodbye, I found this time the grief expanded not only for my two daughters but for my father that I lost two years ago and my mother who had to be placed in Alzheimer’s home at the same time. This kind of startled me. Crying does relieve the stress for me as does exercise and praying for my girls. I feel close to them while I’m in prayer and as their mother, my prayers are very specific and powerful. It’s also important to be intentional about your time and to dream again. Both my husband and I are artists, I am specifically a jeweler. Now I am pouring myself into expanding my business by building a website, learning Instagram, and creating inventory. Plus, I work with my husband once a week. Change can be hard but also very rewarding and exciting. It really is about your focus and perspective. You have a wonderful blog. Thanks!

    1. Susan,
      Thank you so much for your honest and open comment. I am so sorry for the multiple losses you have had in a relatively short time frame. Isn’t it weird how grief just compounds and washes over us at unexpected times? My heart goes out to you. I’m so proud of you and you website is so lovely! I love your beautiful jewelry (Everyone, please look at https://www.onearthjewelry.com/). Are you on Etsy? I couldn’t find you, but if you were, I’d love to add you to my Holiday Gift Guide. Let me know, okay? (SORRY! I digress!!!) I think you’re so wise to be intentional about your time and really focus on your dreams. (It really is a privilege to get to do that, isn’t it?) It means so much to me that you enjoy Empty Nest Blessed and that you took the time to leave me a comment. Big hugs to you, Susan! xoxo Suzy

  7. Thank you. It so nice to know I’m not the only one hurting. My mom passed a year and a half ago and no one tells you how hard that can be. My kids all have full lives and that’s what I wanted for them, however it does feel like hitting a brick wall when I think about the past. I try and think of what my mom might say to me at this time in my life. Please know your blog gave me comfort, it felt like a good friend reached out to comfort me. Thanks so much!!

  8. Thanks for this post, Suzy! Very timely and insightful. We all process and handle grief differently, but it\’s encouraging to know I\’m not alone in some of these feelings that are common to us all at this stage. I feel like I could use some new friendships with women in the same stage, but haven\’t found them yet…I\’m not giving up the search!????
    Blessings to you! Betsie

    1. Sweet Betsie, Thank you for taking the time to leave me a comment. Hang in there, sweet Mama! Your instincts are probably exactly correct about finding new friends. Give yourself time to grieve and get used to this new stage. You might want to read one of my articles about next steps! Big hugs to you. xoxo Suzy

  9. Hi,
    I became a widow, my son went into the army and my daughter left for college – all in the span of 3 years. I came upon this site as a HUGE blessing three nights ago. I started a prayer journal specifically for my son and daughter with the Scripture and prayers you posted. So, each night when I climb into bed I reach for my iPad and find “ emptynestblessed” and start writing out my prayers along with yours to help me. I wanted you to know how much I have been encouraged and comforted. Empty nest means much more to me. But Jesus has been on the journey with me and it was no coincidence that I found this site. It was God pointing me here. Thank you again!
    Carm

    1. Carm, Thank you so much for your precious comment, sweet Mama. You were so thoughtful to take the time to share it with me. I am so sorry for your struggles, but so very thankful that the Lord has comforted you as only He can. Thank you for reaching out to share your story. I’m so glad Empty Nest Blessed has been helpful to you! Know that sometimes I wrote about serious things like the articles you mentioned and sometimes I wrote about things like makeup and fashion – we’re girls after all (!) – so not every post may be as helpful! That said, I am SO glad you’re here. Big hugs and love to you, and thank you again for sharing with me. xoxo Suzy

  10. I am definitely struggling with #4 Identity Crisis! Within six months, our youngest of six children moved out, my mother made her way to heaven, and I turned 60! I had home schooled all six K-12, and had been the primary care giver for my Mom, who struggled with Parkinson\’s and Alzheimer\’s for 5 years, so now I am confused as to what am I supposed to DO?? After taking time this past year to \”grieve the death of a life I\’d put everything into (Michele Howe)\” for over 35 years, and seeing things a little more clear headed lately, I am sill wondering and waiting on God to lead and guide my next steps. I appreciate your comments in another post regarding \”grit\”, as I started an online, Facebook, Bible study (because I love teaching), but don\’t seem to engage any responses. I also have been teaching adult dance fitness and Tai chi classes, but am frustrated with that too, since I only have a handful of students. A few years ago, I also studied and became a certified health coach, but I have difficulty with \”marketing\” and have never been able to attract any paying clients. I just want to \”help\” people, and I know I need to persevere, that God rewards faithfulness, but this pathway is so foggy and confusing at times!! I look forward to reading your future blog posts and emails. Thank you Suzy, and may God bless you for your ministry to us empty nesters!

    1. Beth,
      I am so sorry, but for some reason, I just saw your comment! Since it’s been over a month since you left this comment, I hope things are moving in the right direction for you! (Again, so sorry!) You went through such a lot in such a short amount of time, Beth. It only makes sense that it is going to take a significant amount of time to get your feet back under you. Do you have any more clarity in the direction you want to head? My first thought when I read your comment was that you might want to pick whichever one of the activities you listed really has your heart and go ALL IN! It would be interesting to see what happened. Maybe by spreading yourself too thin, you’re not seeing success in any of them???
      Unfortunately, “marketing” is the “necessary evil” when you have a service or product you want to market. I get that it’s challenging – it’s not my favorite part of what I do either, so I get where you’re coming from for sure.
      Hang in there, sweet girl, and please let me know how you’re doing.
      Thanks so much for your comment and your kind words!
      xoxo Suzy

  11. Hi Suzy! I just stumbled across your blog today for the first time! I have a daughter who is getting married in two weeks and a son who will be leaving for college at the end of August. I get teary just thinking about the empty house. I haven’t really started empty nesting yet, but feel like I have been grieving the loss already! I am so thankful for your insight and wisdom as someone who has been there and I so look forward to reading more. Thank you!

    1. Hi Nancy, and welcome!
      I’m so happy that you found me and I cannot believe that if you’re the MOB in two weeks you even have time to read my blog! Hahahaha!
      I’m so sorry to hear that you’re already so sad about your son, but I have to say that I actually think that’s GOOD. The people who really seem to struggle the most are the ones that don’t deal with it at all until it’s happening!
      Please know that you WILL grieve, and that’s normal and healthy. It will be a process, and it would be good to start thinking now about how you might want to use your time once your nest empties. Take inventory and see what needs attention? Your health? Your marriage? Your wardrobe? Your home? Having a goal to address those things that need the most attention will give you something to focus on while you go through the initial adjustment period.
      I hope those thoughts help!
      Again, welcome!
      xoxo Suzy

  12. 8 months into empty nest…miss them so much it hurts, lost, lonely, empty, sad, no purpose, etc…
    Your blog gives hope. Thank you!

    1. Suzanne,
      Aw, so sorry you’re still struggling so much. Might be time to seek out some help. I’m so glad you’ve found hope in my blog. Such a kind thing to say! Hang in there, sweet girl. xoxo Suzy

  13. I have 4 boys. All are adults and left home one by one. The last two did stay home the longest and as a single mom at the time after my husband I separated. I raised them both the two youngest ones on my own since one was in elementary school to middle school to high school. And the other from mid school to high school. Seeing them choose jobs going thru their challenges and mines emotionally and financially at the same time for the past 12 years maybe a little longer. We been through a lot together. And now just in the past 4 months they have both moved out. When the 3rd one moved out I didn’t want him to leave but knew I had to let him go so he could be happy. But I still had the youngest one still at home. So I still had someone still with me. When he told me that he was moving things began to move quickly for it to happen. He was moving to another state. A 4 hour flight away. I really tried hard not to feel at loss. Didn’t even think I would feel what I felt next. When he finally left that day I felt this grief that was so heavy I cried all evening. I went to his room and could still feel his energy so strong. I slept with his blanket and took some of his clothes that he left and cried myself to sleep . The next day I couldn’t find the energy to go out to do anything. But cried and cried more. My other son that moved prior to the youngest lives very close by so he came to help me get out to get some things done. I cried even with him in his car. I told him that people always tell me that I am so strong but right now I don’t want to be and cried more. He was sad himself which he shared later as we talked more over the days following my youngest ones move out of state. It’s been a little over three weeks now and at times I feel okay until I’m home alone and look at something that represents him and then I cry a little. I saw this site because I was googling to find a movie to watch about this, maybe something that will make me laugh becauseI had been crying a little…I really don’t know. I believe just something to make me feel better I guess and came across this site. I started to cry when I read the part #5 about “crying in my sons bedroom when he left ” and thought about how I did the same. So thank you for sharing this. I will try some of the tips maybe. But thank you. I actually did change pillows tofay… that did help. Thanks again.

    1. Romaine,
      I am so sorry for your pain. It is so difficult when they leave, and I do think it’s even worse for single moms. I do think that gradually your good times will increase and your bad times will decrease. If that doesn’t happen in a month or so, you need to reach out to your doctor, a pastor, or a counselor and talk to them about it, okay? I will be praying for you. Hang in there, sweet mama! xoxo Suzy

  14. Empty nester here..I am not the person I was 18 years ago. My husband was so busy making himself he never noticed I changed. Now we are struggling. I just tell him straight. He thinks I should be the person I was 30 years ago when we married. I talk straight to him but I think the wall understands more. He wants nothing to do with my grief. I feel cheap when some of it pops out when he is around. I know this will pass…it is very lonely.

    1. Barbie,
      I am so grieved to hear of your struggles. You two need to see a counselor or things will not get better. Please reach out to your pastor, mentor, or a professional counselor for help. Life’s too short for you to live the rest of it in this state. Thank you for your comment. xoxo Suzy

  15. Thank you!! I am a widow (4 years) and my 28 year old daughter is leaving for the first time. I feel sad already, I keep telling myself we raise them to go out on their own and live their own lives. I will miss her so very much.

    1. Michele,
      It’s only normal that you would feel the way you do. I am so sorry. Please know that you can reach out to someone for help (and you should) if you need to. Big hugs from me. xoxo Suzy

  16. My son left Friday, August 16, 2019, for College. I did great until I came home and the house was empty and quiet. I have cried everyday since. I look around my house and just cry. Trying to find out what’s next for me in life is hard, but I am positive I will get there, it is just going to take some time.

    1. Ailisa,
      I agree that the quiet house is the WORST in those first few days. Don’t underestimate the level of grief you are dealing with! It is significant! Also, remember that, as with any other type of grief, yours may look a lot different from your friends or other family members. That’s okay! Don’t rush it. You need to feel those feelings in their entirety.
      Yes, eventually you wi find out what’s next, but it will be a process. Right now, try to find one thing a day that you can appreciate about the Empty Nest – like the ability to play your music, or the fact that you can go to a late movie. Just one thing a day! Please stay in touch. I am so glad you reached out to me. Hang in there, sweet mama! Big hugs from me! xoxo Suzy

  17. Hi – you helped me a little to understand what I’m feeling. My only son will be graduating from grad school in about a year. He is seriously considering his first internship this summer. We had plans that will be somewhat stifled – we can still meet for a few weekend last summer together trips. Have lots of feelings, hit hard today after he had a successful interview. What has surprised me most is my grief for my husband has come washing in. I lost him a little over 5 years ago and my son has been so much a part of my coping. I am happy and pray he’ll find life long friends or even a forever love. It’ll probably help to have this one summer testing period. I do worry. He is special needs and I worry about his regressing which can happen with his special need. I’m also very happy for him – moving out to a chance in his career. (The internship could lead to a permanent job.) It is just so hard grieving for both my husband and my son. I really haven’t had to cope with being totally alone. A day here and there, yes. I’m an introvert. I know that doesn’t help. I don’t even have a dog – because I’m gone too many hours in a day – about 12. Sorry – felling a little hopeless right now. I’ve never figured out how to go do / vacation totally on my own.

    1. Sharon,
      I’m so sorry to hear of your distress. My heart goes out to you. I am not a professional, but I would say that you could really be helped seeing one.
      I’ve seen a counselor at several different times in my life when I’ve had to deal with particularly difficult situations that left me feeling overwhelmed and much as you described yourself in this comment.
      Would you please consider reaching out to someone. (You have nothing to lose, right? If it does t help, you can always stop.) I really think admitting that you need help takes a lot of courage, but I believe you can do it.
      Know that I am praying for you, and please stay in touch.
      xoxo Suzy

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