Empty Nest Syndrome: It's Okay to Grieve The Juniper Center

Empty Nest Syndrome

It’s that time of year where sons and daughters pack up their lives and move to campus. For many first-time parents, or even parents whose kids have left for school before, the transition of having your child leave home is devastating.  We birth them, watch them take their first steps, wipe their tears, see them off to school year after year.  We watch them grow, learn to drive, make friends and have their own lives.  For many parents, none of that really prepares us for the finality of our child moving out of our homes.  Even if they come home for breaks and summers, it’s different, temporary. This is empty nest syndrome.

Off to College: Grieving the Leaving of your Child

I have sat with many, many moms in my life and in my office, who are grieving the leaving of their child.  Part of the problem for them is that other people in their lives have told them, “there’s nothing to be sad about, this is a happy occasion.”  Or, “now is your time to do what you’ve always wanted!”

What if having kids and being a mom is what you’ve always wanted? 

Now what?  Move on? Even if being a mom is only part of your identity and life, of course, nothing will replace having your kids at home.  People mean well, but it’s typically their need for you to not feel bad or their feelings of helplessness that they’re responding to. Not their wisdom about what you need.

Last week, a friend of mine who is readying her youngest to go off to college came over and sat in my living room with huge tears streaming down her face. She has a career and loves her work. She was pretty upset with herself for having such a strong reaction. My friend was surprised at herself.  “I always thought I would feel excited, not like my child is leaving me forever.”  I just sat with her and let he be sad.

Give yourself permission to feel the sadness and pain.

Like anyone experiencing a loss, the parents need to be allowed to have their sadness and pain. They need to be allowed to grieve the ending of something critical in their lives and hearts. They don’t need advice that smacks of “move on with your life.”

I don’t disagree with that advice, by the way, but timing is everything.

Moving forward can happen after we have been able to be where we are.

If where you are is sad, you need to be allowed to be sad.  You are grieving a loss, and it is a loss for you.  You’re not being selfish or self-involved. You’re being human.  And this applies to Dads too.  I have sat with moms and dads who describe getting busy, distracted, watching more tv, drinking and eating more, getting angry more often, working more all as ways to manage the sadness of their kids being gone.

Some couples argue more because both parents are having big feelings and they don’t have a way to deal with those feelings together.  So not only are they grieving the leaving of their child, they are also not able to be a source of support for each other.

Grieving, like sneezing, is a normal human process.

So, what do we do?  I have to say that any time in my life I have been thrust into grieving, I hate it.  Grieving has a bit of a life of its own. One thing I know for sure is that you need a place where you can have all your feelings.  Trying to avoid them is like stifling a sneeze.  Grief, like sneezing is a normal, human process.  If you stifle it, it will come out anyway, in some form and will likely be more difficult.

Four Tips for Embracing the Empty Nest and your Emotions as Your Child Leaves for College

  1. Find someone in your life who can tolerate sitting with your pain.

    If you have a friend or adult family member who you can talk to, great!  And if not, there are online Facebook groups, meet-ups and the like.  If you don’t have someone, find a therapist.  You might just need them for a limited amount of time to handle this transition.

  2. Allow yourself time to adjust.

    Having a child move out is an adjustment and adjusting takes time.  Everyone’s trajectory is different, so give yourself a bit of grace and patience.

  3. Create a memory project.

    If it brings you peace at the end of a work session, sit down with old cards, pictures, notes, etc. and do something with them. Maybe you’ll head to a photo department and make yourself a mug or perhaps you’ll create an old-fashioned scrap book.  Maybe you’ll sit and write or dictate about your favorite memories.  Others in your life might say that you’re wallowing. Again, they’re well meaning, but sometimes it’s incredibly helpful to sit and think about, cry and enjoy old memories.

  4. Let it be.

    I wish there were a fix for your feelings, but there really isn’t.  This is just the truth.  The closest thing I can suggest as a fix is to let the feelings be there. You won’t cry forever.  If you let yourself feel your sadness, it will likely move through you and you can move on.  The feelings will probably come back again but allow them again and they will move on again.


Adjusting to the new normal.

Typically, after a few weeks or even months, you will adjust to the new normal.  Your life will feel like yours and you will find ways to fill your time and heart.  If you get stuck in the process, there might be more going on for you.

For those who have had other significant losses or no experience with loss at all, it may be more difficult.  If your parents, especially your primary caretaker, had a problem with attachment to you (too much or too little), it will likely be more difficult.

If you have a hard time managing emotions, especially difficult ones, it will likely be more difficult.  These are scenarios where you are stuck and not really adjusting, even after a few months.  If that’s the case, it might be a signal from your system that you need more help working it through.

Most parents do, in fact move through the sadness.  Kids come home for break and for the summer and that sense of “the family” returns, to some extent.  The more you can let yourself feel what you feel, the more likely you’ll be able to enjoy your kids when they return.


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