I am not a professional counselor, but as someone who has talked to hundreds of empty nesters and dealt with the transition myself, I do know a few things about empty nest grief. I get hundreds of direct messages and emails from empty nesters every month asking me if what they’re feeling is “normal.” First of all, let me say that “normal” is a terrible word! But since that’s the word that most people use, for this post, that’s the word I’m going to use too. Today I’m giving you my opinion, based on my experience, and I’m giving it to you straight.
Empty Nest Grief: What’s “Normal”
1.Bewilderment – Where did the time go? How could my child be this old already? How did we get here? Someone once said that the days are long, but the years are short. Feeling this way is normal.
2. Regret – It’s normal to think back on the years gone by and wish you’d done things differently. Many of us regret parenting decisions we made, and think, “If only I’d _________________.” Fill in that blank with worked less, been stricter, been more supportive, etc. We all feel that way sometimes! When I was down in Austin moving my 26-year-old son into his new apartment last weekend, I started mentally beating myself up that I hadn’t done a better job of teaching him to clean and cook. Remember that you did the best you could, and let it go.
3. Loss – With kids in the house, there was always somebody who needed food, clean clothes, a listening ear, or even a hug. In the empty nest, many moms feel like no one needs them anymore and they’ve lost their purpose. This feeling is normal and is especially acute with single moms or parents of only children. I’m so sorry. We have all been there. The acute pain will abate over time, I promise.
4. Identity Crisis – Even if you have a high-powered career or other commitments that kept you busy, the day you gave birth being a mother became your primary identity. That’s a good thing, and it means that you were a devoted and loving mom! It’s normal to wonder who you are now that you’re not needed as a mom on a day-to-day basis.
5. Sadness and Tears – Most of the emails I get are from new empty nesters who are stunned by the sheer weight of the grief they feel. Even though they knew the empty nest was coming, the strong emotions still threw them for a loop. Feeling sad and crying is normal. Crying is a proven stress reliever and a healthy expression of emotion. It’s okay to cry. I can remember sitting in my son’s room and sobbing the day after he left. Lots of moms tell me they’ve done this.
6. Worry – It’s normal to worry about your kids once they’re gone. Will they be able to take care of themselves on their own? Do they have the necessary skills to adult successfully? Will they stay safe and make good decisions? Trust that you’ve raised them well, and that they’ll remember all of your words of warning. I pray faithfully for my kids, and that’s a big help.
7. Mixed Emotions – Parenting is basically the business of working yourself out of a job. When your child graduates from high school and goes off to college, it’s cause for celebration. (Good job! This is what you’ve been working toward!) But empty nest grief runs parallel to these celebratory feelings. It’s normal to feel confused by this!
8. A Sense of Relief – Perhaps without even realizing it, your life has been focused on your children’s emotional, physical and psychological needs. It’s normal to feel a sense of relief and even newfound energy as you look forward. Don’t feel guilty about this!
9. Weirdly Excited – Life as an empty nester can be invigorating! It’s normal to have a “midlife reawakening” of sorts and question everything: your relationships, your work, how you spend your leisure time, etc.
10. Ebbs and Flows – Anyone who has experienced loss relates to the normal ebb and flow of grief. One of the things no one talks about in the empty nest is that you’ll feel a resurgence of empty nest grief every time they come home for a visit and leave again. It’s okay. I promise that it won’t be as bad as it was initially, but it will be there.
Empty Nest Grief: What’s Not “Normal”
1. Extended Time Spent in Active Mourning – As with any type of grief, it’s challenging to pinpoint a typical, healthy time frame for the feelings of sadness to begin to dissipate somewhat. In my experience, if you’re worried that your sadness, feelings of loss, regret and grief have overtaken you for too long, listen to that voice and seek help. Being unable to stop crying is not normal.
2. Debilitating Depression – If you are predisposed to depression, empty nest grief can trigger it. If you find that you cannot get out of bed, shower, or resume activities you enjoy, or if you’re abusing substances like alcohol to cope, you need to seek help immediately. This is not normal. (But probably more common than you think.)
3. Feeling Overwhelmed – All the possibilities and choices about what’s next can be overwhelming and paralyzing. This is not normal if it goes on too long. It takes time to figure out what’s next. Give it the time it is due, but do move forward.
4. Getting “Stuck” – Some of the saddest emails I get are from women who feel like they’re “stuck” in empty nest grief even years after their nests have emptied. This is not normal. The empty nest is a season of life, just like the season of mothering young children (Remember the exhaustion?) or caring for aging parents. There should be some degree of moving ahead in life and learning and growing. If there isn’t, it’s time to get help.
5. Feelings of Inadequacy – Just because you’re not involved in day-to-day mothering activities, you will continue to parent your children as they move toward adulthood. Although you may feel inadequate at first — learning to parent adult children requires an entirely new outlook and skill set — you can do it, Mama! It’s not normal or healthy to feel inadequate and to continue to parent the way you always have. You might want to check out some of the articles I’ve written on this topic to get started on this journey.
Empty Nest Blessed readers have been asking me to write a post like this for some time, but I kept putting it off! The thought of telling other people what they’re feeling is “normal” or “not normal” was just too scary! After all, we’re all different, and that means we’ll all have different experiences when it comes to adjusting to the empty nest. I started Empty Nest Blessed to bless, encourage, and inspire women as they seek to move forward in the empty nest season of life, and I don’t want to discourage anyone! That said, a big part of moving forward in the empty nest is facing your fears! So, I finally worked up my courage, and after much thought and prayer, I decided to share my opinions. My prayer is that this post will help and encourage those of you who are trying to assess where you are on the empty nest grief continuum and gently nudge you forward as you look toward the future. 🙂
I’d love to know your thoughts! Please leave me a comment and let me know how your experience matched up to what I identified as “normal” or “not normal.” Most people tell me that they read not only my posts, but also all of the comments that follow from my wise readers! Please share your thoughts if you think they could bless someone, and feel free to share this post if you think it could help others. (You can use the share buttons below.)