This is an update to an article I wrote over a year ago about grief and the empty nest. I wrote it on the day my youngest was coming home from college for Spring Break. I hadn’t seen her since Christmas vacation. It made me think how, as the youngest of my three children, her leaving for college was the most painful. I know many of you are already anticipating your son or daughter heading off to college in the upcoming months, some for the very first time. Maybe this article can help bring some perspective to how you may be feeling.
This week my only son left for Graduate School at Georgetown School of Medicine. It brought up all those feelings I had when I originally wrote the article. Happiness that he is finally going off to pursue his dream of being a Doctor. Excitement that he is going back to the east coast where we had so many wonderful years as a family. Sadness that I am going to miss the time we have been able to spend together walking at the beach and talking about life. But this isn’t the first time he is leaving the nest. In fact, he is off to Graduate School not his freshman year of college, and yet I find myself facing my old friend grief again.
Life CAN CHANGE
For parents facing an empty nest, life can become a huge grieving event. It is either devastating or it is liberating. The deep sense of missing your child can be overwhelming or maybe even for some, surprising. Never thought you’d miss not having to step over the pile of dirty clothes in the hallway did you? Never thought you’d long for the laughter of high school girls gathering in your living room to watch The Bachelor on Monday nights? Just driving by the track or soccer field where you spent most of your weekends now brings you to tears. It feels like your life has been swept out from under you. Of course it is not surprising you are hurting when you have been fully integrated into your child’s life for the last 18 years. Now what are you supposed to do? Spend time with your spouse? Take up underwater basket weaving? Take that long awaited trip to Europe?
As parents, we should look at the empty nest syndrome as an opportunity to put closure on this chapter in our life, embrace it and move forward. Face your grief. Be sad. Don’t isolate yourself but participate in life. Re-discover what you like to do. Find your identity. Remember you are not broken just sad and that is perfectly normal and healthy.
Our gut reaction may be to try to “suck it up” and pretend like everything is ok. We smile when we are asked how we are doing. “Just fine” comes out of our mouth even when we don’t feel that way. When asked about our college student we try not to tear up. Everything is “great” we say while gritting our teeth. We may avoid going out so we don’t run into anyone who may ask about them. That would certainly bring on the tears. In reality, these responses are only hurting us. They are masking what we are really feeling. Sadness. Pain. Loneliness.
Even worse, we pretend everything is “fine” when we talk to our college student. Wouldn’t want to upset them. They probably don’t care anyway. Too much fun in college. We’re sure they don’t even miss us. So we call, but not too much. We text, but only occasionally. We make sure we don’t leave tearful voicemails on their cell phones. When we haven’t heard from them for a few days, we try not to panic. We plan a trip so we can go see them, then count the days until it happens. Deep down we are still sad and hurting.
It’s Hard for Our Children Too
As hard as it is for us, we forget it is also hard for our child. They too go through a sense of loss once they leave home. Home – the place they couldn’t wait leave – now becomes a place they begin to miss terribly. No more home cooked meals. No more Mom or Dad bugging them to make their beds. No hugs just because. They try to be strong. They grieve alone. Wouldn’t want to other kids to see they are homesick. Not cool. They don’t let us know because they know how sad we are already.
From a grief recovery perspective it is best for everyone to face their grief. It is ok to be sad whether you are the “empty nest” parent or the child away at college. Sharing your grief as a family brings healing. Talk about it. Know that it is ok. In fact that it is even better if you grieve together. My daughter gave me the biggest HUG when I finally saw her six weeks after she became a college freshman. Schools plan those Parent Weekends at six weeks for a reason. It’s about the time that college freshman really begin to miss their families. That HUG from my daughter told me everything I needed to know.
If you aren’t an empty nester but are a friend of one, listen and be supportive. Hand them a kleenex when you are at lunch and let those few tears roll down their cheek. Don’t try to intellectualize with them, just listen with your heart. They just need to get it out – not be fixed.
The same goes for the college student who may be also be facing a grieving event by moving away from home. As a parent, let them express how they feel. Listen and don’t try to fix them. Allow them to share their sadness. Then when you see them on Parent’s Weekend, just give them the BIGGEST HUG you can muster. That will say it all.
You will all survive this TOGETHER.
Sending you love, comfort and peace!