Hey, Beautiful. I hear you’re lonely.
Seems your child, the person you have poured so much of yourself into, is gone, and you now have an empty nest. I’m sorry–that’s a really tough place to be, especially if you don’t fit the stereotype. Sounds like you need a survival guide.
In my opinion, many people assign too small a definition to ’empty nest’.
They behave as though it only refers to those children who have moved on to college. At this very moment though, all around us, parents grieve not being with their child for any number of reasons. Lots of parents have an empty nest when their child visits their other parent. Others find their nest empty because their child has died, and still others are having to mourn a child who never made it to a full term delivery.
So yes–while the technical definition for an empty nest means they’ve moved on to college, the loss of your child, no matter how natural or unnatural the circumstances, is a profoundly painful experience.
Others can look in on you and witness your pain, even understand it to a degree, but they will never really know your individual heart, or the particular circumstances that trigger your moments of sadness. So my list, while meaning to be helpful and loving, could never be comprehensive, because there’s simply too much ground to cover. Instead, it’s meant to be a gentle starting point, designed to both acknowledge and soothe your wounded soul. Let’s get started.
1. Survival Guide Basic–Acknowledge Your Loss.
Please don’t gloss over this loss, no matter how it’s evolved. Don’t pretend you are fine, think you will always need to be strong, or refuse to adjust your mindset. There are different reasons your child may not be living with you any longer, and each of them is going to feel extremely unnatural. You know why? Because they are. (Unless your kid is peeling out in the station wagon to college, in which congratulations are in order, because you raised a smart kid). Whatever the reason your child is no longer living with you, it’s time to recognize–officially–that your life circumstances have changed. Denial only works for a while, and then things will start crashing around you if you’re not careful, so it’s time to stare this beast in the face to start some healing.
2. Be Ready For Random, and Unexpected Crying Sessions.
I don’t care your gender, job title or pay grade. You can be a complete boss about everything else, and that’s fine. The first time you catch yourself unnecessarily setting your child’s place at the dinner table it’s going to be a significant gut punch. Life is often tough, unfair and unpredictable, so sneaky moments will be waiting to hammer you. You may see a teenager with his mom, or see a DVD in the store your daughter used to watch as a baby. Out of the blue, you’re suddenly going to be a mess, and the people around you may or may not understand what’s going on. I don’t care about them. Forget about them. We’re talking about you.
3. Allow Yourself to Love on Y-O-U.
Remember how much care you lavished on your child? Now it’s your turn. Good food, good rest, hydration, exercise–you need to make sure you’re paying attention to your own physical needs. Sure–staying up all night eating crappy food in front of the television and crying where no one can see you may sound like a good plan, but it’s not. I promise–it’s just not. Surviving an empty nest starts with meeting your own personal needs, because having an empty nest AND depression is not something you want to play around with. Don’t set yourself up for failure–you need to take care of your body, as well as your mind. Get a massage, have wine and chocolate for dinner, treat your spouse to a weekend away–indulge a bit with something that seems unnecessary, because right now you need to be very kind to yourself.
4. Expect completely random memories to surface that you’ll want to share with everyone.
Like the young mother you see in the grocery line behind you. You’ll notice her brand of diapers. Boom–you’ll suddenly have a picture in your head of your daughter wearing the same brand, shrieking with delight under the garden hose as she sees the tiny rainbows in the falling water. You’ll pause–startled by this beautiful memory–and turn to this stranger with a smile. “My Amber wore that same brand!” you’ll say. This woman will look up from her phone/other child/purse-where-she-can’t-find-her-wallet and give you a bland smile. “Really?” she’ll say politely. You’ll have to decide if you tell this woman about the rainbows or not.
It’s okay if you don’t.
5. Know At Some Point You Will Probably Sit On Their Bed and Cry.
Or wail. I did–I actually wailed. The pain was so intense. I don’t need to say a lot about this one, because it will be a deeply painful and private moment for you, just as it was for me. So be ready for it to happen at some point, and know it’s okay when it does.
6. Recognize You Need to Start Moving On.
Yes–a good cry is necessary. Yes–good food, good sleep–all the stuff we’ve talked about is imperative. But so is the need to move past all of this, and start making plans for your new reality. Otherwise–you can get trapped. Surviving an empty nest is going to take a multi-faceted approach, and starting with the acknowledgement that it’s time to get cracking on Part B Of Your Life is key. Allow yourself a little bit of time to mourn, but then get your sad self moving.
7. Reach Out to Other People.
This can be tough. Admitting we’re either weak or wounded goes against everything we’ve been taught. Men are told things like they can’t cry. The end. They shouldn’t cry. Women are told we’re supposed to have a natural birth. (Spoiler alert–I didn’t, so don’t feel bad if you took anesthesia, too). And that’s just the beginning of how we’re told we need to behave as parents. So toss any bad templates about parental behavior out the window, (no matter what they are), and let somebody know you’re grieving. Call a friend. Talk to your partner. Join a parenting group, either in real life or in social media. Others further along in this journey may have designed their own survival guide, and can share tips with you. but they have to know you’re hurting. Pick up the phone, send out an email, meet a friend for lunch–something that involves you communicating this message to another human: “I miss my child”. Let them take over from there. They love you, and want to help. I promise.
8. Think hard–really hard–about something you miss from your life before children, and pick it back up.
Yes–parenthood is wonderful. Let’s all stop for a round of applause since being a parent is so awesome. And then, when that’s over, let’s talk about the slightly darker side of being a parent–the sacrifice involved. Don’t turn away–you know I’m right. Something about you had to wither over the years so you could be a successful parent. What was it? A skill, like playing tennis? Or your education? Did you mean to get another degree? Did you stop something you loved, like playing the piano? Something about you exists, my Friend, that is unique. What is it? Where has it gone? Find it!
9. Set a New Goal For Yourself.
Train yourself to look ahead, instead of behind. Yes, it’s okay to wallow in this loss every so often–you’re human after all–but remember look forward. Pick a goal that is reasonable, and matters to you. Decide you’re ready to learn Spanish. Decide you want to re-do your kitchen. Decide you want to learn a new sport, read 10 books a month, or be the one asked to perform the next choir solo in church. Find a goal that alights something in you and you alone, and then work to make it happen. Baby steps are okay, just try to grow your self-outlook a bit during this time of transition.
10. Recognize if you need to ask for help.
I’m not going to lie–this is big stuff. Dealing with an empty nest, no matter the cause, it serious life change business, and stumbling along the way is to be expected. So if you realize you are having problems with anger, grief, substance abuse–any of the biggies–ask for help. You can start with your family doctor if you don’t know where to begin, but empty nest and depression is a real thing. No shame here, Friend. I promise. Know when to reach out.
AND–just ‘cuz I love ya–Bonus Item Number 11–stay in touch. I regularly write about life transitions, and empty nest stuff is just one slice of the TeamJeffers pie. As a matter of fact, you may enjoy this earlier piece about acknowledging your empty nest: ‘And Just Like That, They’re Gone’. Remember to subscribe, send me a note if you want any life coaching, and let’s stay friends.
You’re gonna make it, Beautiful.
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**Chanler Jeffers has seen many extraordinary things over her lifetime. An adventurer, survivor, overachiever and advocate of kindness in all instances, she has been awarded the Lifetime Achievement Award by the American Chamber of Commerce Executives (ACCE), and is a member of their Circle of Champions. She has had the good fortune to live and travel all over the world, grew up as a military dependent and was a single parent for many years. She has survived cancer, and gently shaped countless people over her years on this little planet we call home. Follow along as she shares her knowledge, her experience and her love. Oh, by the way–one more thing. She’s married to a Bass playing rock star, lucky girl.