You’ve spent most of your adult life focused on the care and raising of your children, and now they’re leaving for university or working away from home. For you and for them, this major transition is often challenging in many ways. You may feel surprised at the power of your grief—a confusing mixture of sadness, hope, emptiness, fear, excitement, and other emotions all at once. Whether you’ve had one child or four of them, the new quietness in the house can be heart-breaking and ignoring or belittling the grief feelings is the worst thing we can do, as you are not allowing yourself to process our emotions and overcome the sorrow.
It is crucial to understand that empty nester grief is normal and even necessary – PhD Alan D. Wolfelt claims in his book Healing the Empty Nester’s Grieving Heart. – Our grief will help us not only whether these transition years but also strengthen the relationship with our partner and children, rediscover our own divine spark and live fully and joyfully in the new dimension of parents of adult children.
In his book, Dr Wolfelt provides one hundred concrete, simple pieces of advice on how to deal with our mixed feelings when it is time to let go of our children who become independent and move out. CrunchyTales chose some of the crispiest ones to share along with some personal experiences of empty nester women from our community.
Practice owning and communicating your grief
Don’t hide or deny your grief, but say it out loud to someone, your partner, colleagues, friends, other children or your own siblings. Be honest and forthcoming about precisely what you are feeling and explain to them why you are sad. Never shame yourself or anyone else for being over-attached to their children when they experience sadness. Talk with someone you know can be compassionate about your grief.
Understand that your child is grieving also
Even though it may seem your child is excited about moving out and starting a new chapter of her life, she is undoubtedly also experiencing grief and a sense of loss. She will be missing her old friends, school, room, pets, siblings as well as her parents. So be a mentor of grief and let your child know that you are sad about her leaving. Tell her it is ok for her to feel sad and that together you will work through this transition.
Work on your changing self-identity
When our children leave home, we lose many roles, responsibilities and connections that shaped who we have been over the past two decades. We need to understand who we are in the new phase of our lives and what exactly will take the place of past responsibilities and connections.
When my two children left the house – Monica S., 61, pharmacist, says to CrunchyTales- the first feeling I experienced was happiness and contentment for their achievements. I loved watching them become independent and manage on their own. Having more free-time to myself, as I didn’t have to cook, clean and wash all the time, gave me a sense of liberty, too. I have formed a certain routine to my day and keep it up, no matter what. I get dressed in colourful clothes, even though no-one might see me, and I cook a nutritious, healthy meal just for myself. I follow online-courses, watch movies and read books. For me, it has been important to remain curious and not let depression settle in.
This transition will take time and not happen overnight, but it is important to consciously process these thoughts and question ourselves who we want to become in this new phase of our lives.
Find new ways to connect with your child
If your child moves to a different city or even a country or continent, daily face-to-face communication will hardly be possible. However, you can connect with your child through phone calls (also with video), writing emails and sending text messages and letters. Take advantage of these technological means and let your child know you’re thinking of them. Do it often.
Technology has helped me to fill the emptiness – Paola D., 58, prosperity coach and digital entrepreneur explains-. I can see my daughter every day on a video call and we often ‘have lunch together’, me here in Rome and my daughter in London. It helps to turn the time you used to spend with and for them, into ’me’ time that you can devote to a hobby, exercise or anything you love to do and to re-creating intimacy with your significant other.
Respect and communicate with your partner and take extra care of yourself if you are a single parent
Every parent experiences empty nest grief differently, depending on their character and on the relationship they had with the child who is moving out. Two parents will not share the same thoughts and emotions over the child’s departure and each should be respectful of the other’s feelings. Open communication is key to overcoming the transition as is it essential to support each other rather than behave hurtfully or resentful.
As a single or divorced parent, the grief will most like be even deeper, as the relationship with the child was most likely very close. Make sure to reach out and not remain alone with sorrow. Let others – friends, colleagues and family members – help and console you. If you don’t have a proper support network, professional counselling might be a great resource.
My golden years were those ones when my children were young and I was embraced by their lives – Joanna C., 65, florist, says-. I miss my daughter now that she has moved but I know that she was ready. Life is a roller coaster, it has its ups and downs but if love prevails you can get through anything.
Relearn how to take care of yourself
When our children are gone, the enthusiasm for cooking full meals might suddenly disappear. Lonely days at the house could lead us to spend time in our pyjamas, not taking care of our looks, hygiene or health. However, it is important to feed ourselves with nutritious food, dress and groom ourselves, as well as entertain ourselves, just as before. Getting enough sleep and physical exercise will help lift our spirits. It is important to remember that our children, even if further away, still need us.
Reconnecting with old friends is a wise investment. If you haven’t been in touch with them lately, pick up the phone or send a text message and set up a coffee or lunch date. If you’d like to meet new people or challenge yourself, explore your passions and sign up for a new hobby or contact a local association. Getting involved in the local community, joining an association or club will help you fill your schedule and give you a reason to get out of the house.
Practice thinking “I want” What you want
When we become parents we usually tend to subordinate our own needs and wants to those of our children. Exercising this line of thought for almost two decades will make us completely out of practice when we finally can allow ourselves to say “I want…”. So now it’s time to make a list of what we really want, on a detailed level for our daily routines in the short term, as well as for our future in the longer term. Remember it can be equally important to do another list with the things we do NOT want. Focusing our attention on the positives will help us reach those goals and fulfil those desires.
Let your hair down
For a very long time, you’ve had to play the role of the responsible, dependable and predictable parent and adult. Now that your children are gone, you can awaken the inner child in you and go wild. Dessert for dinner? Singing in the shower? Walking naked around the house? Yes, you can! Do something harmlessly irresponsible and playful, every day.
According to a German study led by Christoph Becker at Heidelberg University and published in the journal Plos One last year, the happiness that children bring to our lives only truly starts to blossom when they grow up and leave the nest.
The team focused the investigation on data from a European survey that involved 55,000 participants over the age of 50, who reported on their emotional well-being. The analysis showed that people in this age group with children had greater life satisfaction and fewer symptoms of depression compared to older adults without children. These improvements in well-being, however, were only found among parents whose children had moved out of the family home. This may be because when they grow up and become more independent, they provide financial support and social enrichment for their parents instead of the day-to-day stress that is associated with raising them. In fact, as our children evolve into adults with lives, opinions, and passions of their own, they will bring back to us so much to learn and admire. As we begin to enjoy having young adults for children, our empty nest will seem less a place of emptiness and more a place of accomplishment and great memories.
Now is your chance to pay attention to what makes you happy and fulfilled, not as a parent but as a person. So, look at the bright side; you’ve had the wonderful, enriching opportunity to look after your children and grow together with them, but now is the time to enjoy your freedom, the peaceful quietness in the house and the possibility to truly decide what you want to do with your days.