by Michele Mariscal, PhD, CPTD
One of the definitions of grief can help you understand why, when children leave home for college, to wed, or start a career, there may be feelings of grief.
Grief is: The conflicting feelings following the end of, or change in a familiar pattern or behavior.
“It’s a big house. I never realized how big it was until it was empty.” Those might be mom and/or dad’s thoughts as they sit alone drinking a morning coffee, contemplating the day. The youngest child has gone away to college or has left home to wed or start a career.
Well-meaning friends might tell you that you should be thrilled that your job as chief, cook, and bottle washer is over. While this may be true and cause for celebration there may also be an empty feeling (conflicting feelings following the end of a familiar pattern). For years, your home was filled with the energy and presence of your children, and now that dynamic has changed. Allow yourselves to grieve the absence of their daily presence while understanding that it’s a natural part of their growth and development.
Acknowledge the loss – it’s essential to recognize that empty nest syndrome involves a significant loss and the degree to which it is felt is unique and individual. Grief is a natural and healthy response to change. Don’t try to suppress your feelings; instead, embrace them. It’s okay to feel sad, nostalgic, or even anxious about the future. Share your emotions with your partner, friends, or a supportive community to process your feelings effectively.
Acknowledge this change with your children too and engage them in any activities they may want to do to celebrate or remember fun things that were a part of family/home life.
Adapting to change is the most difficult of all human endeavors. It is the reason why so many people find it difficult to carry through on new regimes, whether they relate to diet, exercise, or psychological reactions to new circumstances.
Faced with a major life change, most of us will revert to the ideas and beliefs we have practiced over our lifetimes. You may isolate or act strong; in either case, covering up feelings and trying to be brave in the face of a complete overhaul of routine. Emotions that are not processed can be pictured as rocks that you pile into a backpack on your back. The weight can become heavy at some later time through some physical ailment or confusion, anxiety, and even depression.
There are no stats to indicate that heart attack rates skyrocket for empty nest parents, but anecdotal evidence indicates that any number of emotional and physical problems accompany the ending of active day-to-day parenthood.
As friends, family, and co-workers, we must remember not to dismiss or diminish the emotions about which empty nesters want and need to talk. Listen to them – listen with your heart, not your head.
Hear them, don’t fix them; they’re not broken. Being able to be heard fully is how emotional processing happens. Invite them to share what they are celebrating about their child/children moving out into the world as well as what they might miss or find difficult.