When You’re Facing An Empty Nest
by Mary Ann Froelich
When one of my children leaves home, it’s like having another limb cut off… Amputation? That reaction sounded a little extreme… until my firstborn left for college. At first I thought I was going crazy. My sadness seemed entirely out of proportion for such a normal, expected event as my daughter’s departure for college. After all, didn’t our daughter’s blossoming independence mean that we as parents had done our job?
I kept telling myself, “This is ridiculous. Certainly no one has died.” Yet I had to admit that a piece of me actually had died–the piece that daily interacted with my daughter. I was faced with reminders of my loss throughout each day: the empty chair at the dinner table; running to my daughter’s bedroom to tell her the latest news and finding it unoccupied and quiet; reaching for her favorite foods at the market and then lowering my hand, as the tears welled. I felt foolish sharing this with anyone. My husband was not falling apart, and I had other children at home who needed my attention. From my observations, no one else was as traumatized as I was. I felt silly and very much alone.
Having worked with terminally ill children and their families, I recognized that I was walking through the classic stages of grief; however, there had been no wake or closure ceremony, no flowers, no sympathy cards, no bereavement support groups, no acknowledgment. My life was radically changing and no one seemed to notice.
It’s a Process.
The empty nest is not a chronological event or stage. It is a process as individual as you are, a necessary weaning process. Depending on whether you had children earlier or later in life–and how many children you have–you may be anywhere from your late thirties to your fifties when your last child leaves home. Some women are grandmothers by this time.
Though my experience is with children leaving for college, young adults leave home for multiple reasons, such as entering the military or moving out of the house to start a job and become independent. Our pain as parents is the same. Some young people leave home because of conflicts and remain estranged from their families. I would never claim to understand the depth of their anguish; I can only imagine it.
Weaning is a complicated process. Some mothers are baffled when the child they had always been so close to is suddenly angry and rebellious before leaving home. The more connected children are to parents, sometimes the harder they must work to break away, which is confusing for any mom and dad. Escalating conflicts are common as moving day approaches. Our emotions are raw, but we do not know how to share them. An emotional argument is easier for some families to handle than a tearful, prolonged good-bye.
Some mothers breeze through the empty nest transition. After the initial adjustment, they find that they love their new life and enjoy having more free time. Other mothers count the days until their children return home for a vacation break, and then spend the day after they leave crying, grieving for them all over again.
Even though we may be unprepared for the shock when our first child leaves, our role still remains intact if we have younger children living at home. But as each child leaves, “another limb is cut off.” And when our youngest child leaves, we lose our daily identity as a mom. Sending an only child into the world (instant empty nest) is probably the most painful experience for parents.
Your Job Is Done.
One of the most helpful reality checks I received was through my daughter’s university. As part of the summer orientation weekend, we parents attended a group counseling session led by staff psychologists. They began the seminar by playing a recording describing a young boy leaving for his first day of kindergarten, and soon we were all in tears. One mother shouted from the back of the room, “Now why did you do that?! You don’t think I’m already struggling enough?” We wanted to applaud that angry mom. Yet we parents needed to cry (apart from our children) and face the stark reality of what was happening in our lives.
On the final day of orientation, all the parents were treated to an elegant luncheon. In the midst of the meal, our university host came to the microphone and said, “Now I need to tell you that at this very moment, your children are registering for their fall classes. I know that every parent in this room wants to leave immediately and go help their child. But you won’t. Your job is done. It’s their turn. If they don’t learn to do this without you now, they’ll never learn.” He was right. Every parent in that room wanted to give some final advice to his/her child.
One more piece of advice… one more hug… one more.
Excerpted from: When You’re Facing the Empty Nest by Mary Ann Froelich Copyright © 2005; Published by Bethany House Publishers
Used by permission. Unauthorized duplication prohibited.
Beginning Steps to Letting Go
Allow yourself to grieve. Cry. Mourn the loss of a daily relationship with your child. You are not going crazy. You are not the only one who has experienced this parting.
Accept the fact that you will experience a major “letdown.” Make few demands of yourself. You participated in every step of preparing your child to leave home, from helping with the application process, making college visits, encouraging your child in selecting a school, purchasing dorm room needs, attending orientation, and more. Yet now your child is starting a new life and you are returning to your old one, with one big difference–your child’s absence. You feel left out of the fun and excitement of starting a new adventure.
The goal now is to develop friendships and a mutual support system with your adult children. Your first job is done, but your next one is beginning. The truth is that you haven’t lost anything or anyone, but you may feel misplaced for a while.