Your Wings were Ready but My Heart Was Not
“Why are you crying?” John asked his wife, Kristie, sobbing on the porch one night last week. Baffled, Kristie yelled, “I don’t know. All I know is I’m feeling like my heart is being ripped out of my chest.”
It was May and their only daughter’s graduation was only a few weeks away. Kristie contacted me the next day. “This should be such a happy time for us. Chloe is graduating and has been accepted to a great college.” As an independent college counselor, I have been guiding and supporting this family for two years. “You are experiencing feelings of Empty Nest Syndrome," I shared.
According to Psychology Today, feelings of depression, sadness, and oftentimes grief can suddenly overwhelm parents when children come of age and leave home.
I reminded Kristie that she has supported, guided, encouraged, nudged, and loved her daughter through her childhood and teenage years. Over the past year, in particular, Kristie have toured every college on her daughter’s list, agonized over her grades and SAT scores, reminded her of deadlines, completed the FAFSA, impatiently waited for those all-important college acceptance letters, and calculated how to pay for it all.
“These feelings you are having, although uncomfortable, are normal. Your daughter is ready to fly and follow her dreams. You know that consciously. But your heart is not there yet.” I encouraged her to be gentle and kind with herself as she rides the waves of emotions that she’s feeling now.
I remember when I first experienced empty nest. I thought this would be a happy time for me. I’d have more time on my hands. I could finally take that class I wanted, read the latest best-seller, or go to the movies. Then sadness and grief hit me like a sledge hammer and felt totally out of proportion for such a normal event. After all, didn’t my daughter’s independence indicate that I had done a good job of parenting her?
I missed interacting with her every day and was faced with constant reminders of that loss. Running to her room to tell her the latest news of her little brother only to be greeted with emptiness and quiet; looking for her favorite foods in the grocery store and then lowering my head as the tears spilled from my eyes. My life was undergoing a radical change and no one seemed to notice. I felt silly and very alone.
But I wasn’t alone – and if you are getting ready to send your child to college, you are not alone either. Parents experience a whole range of emotions. As I began reading, observing and talking about the challenges faced during this time of the empty nest, I discovered insights that helped me to prepare for this season of life. Although each parent's experience can be a bit different, I hope these tips, listed below, help you to face whatever changes you are feeling.
1. It’s a process.
Remember when you were trying to wean your baby son or daughter off of the bottle, the breast, the pacifier or the blanket? It was a process and took time, just like now. It is going to take time for you adjust to this new way of being with your child.
2. Validate and honor your emotions.
Your feelings are real and need to be honored. A suggestion that really helped me was to journal my thoughts and feelings during this time. Also, look for or start a support group as there are other folks in your area, I’m sure, who are experiencing this same pain and grief. If you find that you need more support, seek a counselor who specializes in supporting parents through this transition.
3. This is grief.
The feelings that you have are the same as if someone you loved has died. A death has occurred. The death of your life with your child up until now. For example, some parents are baffled when the child they have always been close to is suddenly angry and rebellious. Oftentimes, the more connected children feel toward their parents, the harder they work to break away. The resulting conflicts can be confusing but are a normal part of the grieving process.
4. Letting go.
During this time you are learning to let go of what was your life with your child so that you can welcome in this new life. Some moms and dad breeze through the empty nest transition. Others count the days until their child returns home and then spend the day after they leave crying and grieving for them all over again. The process of letting go differs from parent to parent – and sometimes is different as each child leaves home.
5. A new kind of relationship.
Your first job of raising your child into adulthood is now done. Your new task is to develop friends and a mutual support system with your adult children, acting in your new role as a wise friend and mentor. As I learned with my own children, there are a few guidelines for developing friendships with your college-age kids, including:
-Listen more than talk.
Be someone your children can share themselves with without fear of judgment.
Avoid giving unsolicited advice. I always ask my children if it’s OK if I give them a piece of advice before I speak. If they say "No," I don’t.
Speak to your children’s friends with the same courtesy you would in speaking to one of your own friends.
6. Rediscovering You.
As you begin to move through your thoughts and feelings, this is also a time for you to remember some of the dreams that you put on hold once you became a parent. Is there a skill you’d like to learn? A hobby you’d like to turn into a business? What are you passionate about? How do you want to live this next chapter of your life?
Change can be difficult. And, it can also be exciting, scary, challenging, fun, confusing, and joyful. It is always inevitable. Change can blind-side you, sabotage your life, or it can provide you with a magical opportunity to pursue adventures and dreams you’ve never imagine. The good news is that you have a choice. It’s all up to you.
Need support during this time of transition from full-time parent to empty nester? I’m here to help. Contact me at email@example.com