Re: test if null
<xsl:if test="node()">....</xsl:if> does distinguish between <sample/> and all variations of <sample>....</sample>
... including <sample><!-- hey I'm here! --></sample>
which arguably isn't what the OP wants.
Back at the beginning of the thread, someone (DC I think) remarked that it hasn't yet been stated what the actual requirements are, how "empty" is to be defined in this instance. It still hasn't been (though the OP may long since have learned useful things) -- which is one reason why the thread continues.
Also, an aside -- I'm sure there's a reason why some people prefer "string-length(.)!=0" to "string()" (or more robustly, "normalize-space()") -- but I've never been able to guess what it could be.
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