Empty Nest Syndrome or Emptiness?
When Empty Nest Grief Hits You Hard — It Could Signify Something More
“Empty nest”…a rite of passage for all parents. They spend the better part of 18+ years preparing their children to become independent and leave the house. It’s an important life transition for not only the children but for the parents. It signals the end of a significant chapter in their lives.
For some parents the transition can be devastating, leading to deep feelings of grief, emptiness, and loss of purpose. For others, it marks a new beginning with more time and freedom to enjoy life. What makes this transition harder for some and not others?
“If you don’t experience some pain and loss, you’re probably not very connected to your children,” says Gary Robertson, M.S., C.P.C., who has worked with couples and families for over 20 years. He notes that the frequency, intensity, and duration of the feelings of loss are indicators of how the person is responding to the transition. Prolonged periods of intense grief often signal deeper issues.
Knowing whether a parent is experiencing “normal” or “intensified” feelings of Empty Nest Syndrome is important to identify for the healing process.
Deeper feelings of loss frequently occur with parents who are codependent and make their children their primary source of love and connection. In these cases, an “empty nest” brings up deeper feelings of loss, rejection, and abandonment — in other words, their own childhood trauma.
MJ’s life revolved around her three children. As a single parent, she threw herself into raising them and was involved in every activity. She considered them to be her best friends. When her oldest daughter went off to college, she began to experience the first pangs of grief.
She assumed that when her daughter returned from college, they would pick up where they left off and the relationship would be the same. When her daughter returned, she quickly realized this was not the case — her daughter was living her own life now.
“That’s the killer…when you realize you’re not the first priority anymore,” MJ says.
When her second and third children left, the feelings hit her even harder. The grief, loneliness, and loss of day-to day-interaction were devastating. Soon after her last son left, she experienced the death of her mother and sank into a deep depression.
Am I Not Important To Them Anymore?
Tracy, a single mom of two children now in their early 20s, describes the close relationship she had when her kids were young. “We were the three musketeers, my whole life revolved around them. We were the best of friends. I was the person they would always come to,” she says.
Things changed when her children moved out, and her youngest son got a girlfriend. Suddenly she was no longer the first person they came to. It felt like a rejection, and the grieving process intensified.
Like a Death
“Empty nest” grief doesn’t just affect single parents, and it doesn’t just affect women. In “Empty Nest Grieving is Real,” Mason Sabre describes his painful experience as a married dad:
“Those first few months were so hard and strange. It’s like death, but no one has died. And no one around you is giving you compassion like they would if you’d lost someone, so you grieve alone. I grieved for a long time.
Does it get easier? Yes, kind of, but is it all gone for me? No. There are moments. In the general day-to-day, it feels fine. I’m in a routine with my work, and my hobbies and the things I like to do, and taking care of yourself is such a big part of this. But there are still things that are like tiny jabs to my side.”
Ties to Codependency
When a parent is codependent, it can lead to an amplified and more intense experience of Empty Nest Syndrome. The parent isn’t just experiencing a loss or transition in a parent-child relationship, he or she is tapping into painful unhealed trauma.
Codependent parents typically come from families where they were overprotected or underprotected, where they experienced trauma, abuse, abandonment, or where addiction was present within the family.
According to “Dealing with Codependent Parents, How to Help Them and How To Heal”, a codependent parent “will rely on their child for their source of happiness, mental stability, and self-esteem.”
In other words, their children become the source of unconditional love they didn’t receive from their own parents. They create an unhealthy attachment to their child trying to fulfill their own unmet needs and often become overly involved in their children’s lives while neglecting their own needs.
The connection with the child also gives them a sense of security. When the child leaves to go live on their own, it reignites that original trauma and loss. This is excruciatingly painful for the parent, who doesn’t see it coming. They assume the close connection they had with their child during childhood will remain the same throughout adulthood. They will often resist the change and try to hang on to the child and relationship, which causes them further pain.
There is no one way to heal the “empty nest” grief — it’s a life transition that takes time and effort to grieve and fully adjust to a new way of life.
For many parents, recognizing and acknowledging the pain and grief is the first step. Finding support by connecting with other parents experiencing the same feelings of loss can be helpful. Eventually, they redefine their life, find new activities and relationships for fulfillment.
For codependent parents, it’s more involved. Exploring the deeper issues connected to their grief can empower them to take an active role in working through their pain and begin to let go. The more they heal their own unresolved pain and trauma and begin focusing on their own lives, the better they will fare long-term. They may find that seeking therapy and attending codependency support groups can be highly useful in this process.
“It takes a certain person to feel the pain, grieve and do the work to heal. Take it a step at a time, embrace it, look at a piece at a time and get support,” says Robertson, M.S., C.P.C.
When the depression became too much, MJ saw a doctor who suggested the depression and grief were tied to past loss and abandonment. She began trauma therapy and reports that the therapy is helping with the grieving. She recommends talking to other people going through it and forming new relationships. She even recently went on a vacation to Palm Springs with friends.
Tracy has adjusted to living on her own and maintains a close relationship with her oldest daughter. They talk every day, and she considers her to be her best friend. Her son is moving to another city soon with his girlfriend. She talks to him about once a week, when she initiates the call. She’s finding it difficult to connect with him but keeps trying.
“You’re only as happy as your unhappiest child. I still carry their problems, I still try to help them out. My life still revolves around them and my grandkids,” she says.
Although things have gotten better for Sabre, he admits to still having moments that are difficult — such as learning about his children’s problems after the fact, realizing he’s no longer their sounding board; or, the quietness of the holidays. Each is a painful reminder they’ve grown up.
“We have new moments, though. Dinner dates, cinema nights, when they come around and I cook for them, or when we book holidays together,” he says.
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