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Trade Paperback
144 pages
May 2005
Bethany House

When You're Facing the Empty Nest: Avoiding Midlife Meltdown When Your Child Leaves Home

by Mary Ann Froehlich

Review  |   Author Bio  |  Read an Excerpt


Chapter 1

Grieving When Your Child Leaves Home

When one of my children leaves home,

it's like having another limb cut off ...

Amputation? That reaction sounded a little extreme ... until my firstborn left for college. At first I thought I was going crazy. My sadness seemed entirely out of proportion for such a normal, expected event as my daughter's departure for college. After all, didn't our daughter's blossoming independence mean that we as parents had done our job?

I kept telling myself, "This is ridiculous. Certainly no one has died." Yet I had to admit that a piece of me actually had died--the piece that daily interacted with my daughter. I was faced with reminders of my loss throughout each day: the empty chair at the dinner table; running to my daughter's bedroom to tell her the latest news and finding it unoccupied and quiet; reaching for her favorite foods at the market and then lowering my hand, as the tears welled. I felt foolish sharing this with anyone. My husband was not falling apart, and I had other children at home who needed my attention. From my observations, no one else was as traumatized as I was. I felt silly and very much alone.

I not only missed my daughter, I missed her life--her myriad of friends coming in and out of the house, discussing their joys and latest crises with me. I missed hearing her play the piano in the evenings. I was unprepared for the silence. (My mother recently shared with me how she missed listening to my piano practices after I left for college. I did not understand her pain when I was a college freshman, but I understand it now.) An entire chapter of my life had closed overnight. I would no longer daily parent my daughter.

Having worked with terminally ill children and their families, I recognized that I was walking through the classic stages of grief; however, there had been no wake or closure ceremony, no flowers, no sympathy cards, no bereavement support groups, no acknowledgment. My life was radically changing and no one seemed to notice.

I couldn't just pick up the phone and hear my daughter's voice--beyond her voice mail message--whenever I desired. She was immersed in a new life, always on the run, attending classes and multiple university activities, bonding with people I had never met. Our chats were short and sweet. I was thrilled that she had adapted so quickly to her new lifestyle. Yet how would I adapt to the void in mine?

The alternatives were not any better. My friend's son was lonely and homesick at college, calling her twice daily. She carried double misery, hers and his. Another friend's daughter was not accepted to any of the colleges she hoped to attend, and remained at home while her friends left for their respective campuses. Others I knew had adult children still living at home, unable to financially support themselves. Some of our friends were raising grandchildren, a common phenomenon today. They experienced an even deeper grief.

It's a Process

The empty nest is not a chronological event or stage. It is a process, as individual as you are, a necessary weaning process. Depending on whether you had children earlier or later in life--and how many children you have--you may be anywhere from your late thirties to your fifties when your last child leaves home. Some women are grandmothers by this time.

Though my experience is with children leaving for college, young adults leave home for multiple reasons, such as entering the military or moving out of the house to start a job and become independent. Our pain as parents is the same. Some young people leave home because of conflicts and remain estranged from their families. I would never claim to understand the depth of their anguish; I can only imagine it.

Weaning is a complicated process. Some mothers are baffled when the child they had always been so close to is suddenly angry and rebellious before leaving home. The more connected children are to parents, sometimes the harder they must work to break away, which is confusing for any mom and dad. Escalating conflicts are common as moving day approaches. Our emotions are raw, but we do not know how to share them. An emotional argument is easier for some families to handle than a tearful, prolonged good-bye.

Some mothers breeze through the empty nest transition. After the initial adjustment, they find that they love their new life and enjoy having more free time. Other mothers count the days until their children return home for a vacation break, and then spend the day after they leave crying, grieving for them all over again.

Even though we may be unprepared for the shock when our first child leaves, our role still remains intact if we have younger children living at home. But as each child leaves, "another limb is cut off." And when our youngest child leaves, we lose our daily identity as a mom. Sending an only child into the world (instant empty nest) is probably the most painful experience for parents.

Your Job is Done

One of the most helpful reality checks I received was through my daughter's university. As part of the summer orientation weekend, we parents attended a group counseling session led by staff psychologists. They began the seminar by playing a recording describing a young boy leaving for his first day of kindergarten, and soon we were all in tears. One mother shouted from the back of the room, "Now why did you do that?! You don't think I'm already struggling enough?" We wanted to applaud that angry mom. Yet we parents needed to cry (apart from our children) and face the stark reality of what was happening in our lives.

On the final day of orientation, all the parents were treated to an elegant luncheon. In the midst of the meal, our university host came to the microphone and said, "Now I need to tell you that at this very moment, your children are registering for their fall classes. I know that every parent in this room wants to leave immediately and go help their child. But you won't. Your job is done. It's their turn. If they don't learn to do this without you now, they'll never learn." He was right. Every parent in that room wanted to give some final advice to his/her child.

One more piece of advice ... one more hug ... one more. Be prepared that one of the hardest things you will experience in life is that final good-bye at an airport or the first time you walk away from your child's dorm room or apartment, leaving him or her behind. Mothers have been known to sob for the entire length of the trip home--whether it be thirty minutes or ten hours. It's at that moment we realize we are the ones being left behind.

Beginning Steps to Letting Go

Step #1Allow yourself to grieve. Cry. Mourn the loss of a daily relationship with your child. You are not going crazy. You are not the only one who has experienced this parting.

Imagine how parents felt in the [sp[fy1001,1,12]1[rp800s as their pioneer children traveled west, unsure if they would see them again. The Atlantic Ocean was once called the "Bowl of Tears" because of all the parents that were saying a final farewell to their children who were settling in new lands.

Accept the fact that you will experience a major "letdown." Make few demands of yourself. You participated in every step of preparing your child to leave home, from helping with the application process, making college visits, encouraging your child in selecting a school, purchasing dorm room needs, attending orientation, and more. Yet now your child is starting a new life and you are returning to your old one, with one big difference--your child's absence. You feel left out of the fun and excitement of starting a new adventure.

Step #2The goal now is developing friendships and a mutual support system with your adult children. Your first job is done, but your next one is beginning. The truth is that you haven't lost anything or anyone, but it will feel misplaced for a while.

Comfort from

God's Word

The heart knows its own grief best,

nor can a stranger share its joy.

Proverbs 14:10

Yahweh is near to the brokenhearted,

he helps those whose spirit is crushed.

Psalm 34:8

You have noted my agitation,

now collect my tears in your wineskin!

Then my enemies will have to fall back

as soon as I call for help.

This I know: that God is on my side.

Psalm 56:89

Save me, O God:

For the waters have risen up to my neck.

I sink in muddy depths and have no foothold;

I am swept into deep water, and the flood carries me away.

I am wearied with crying out, my throat is sore,

my eyes grow dim as I wait for God to help me.

Psalm 69:13

The New English Bible

Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.

Matthew 5:4

Near the cross of Jesus stood his mother, his mother's sister, Mary the wife of Clopas, and Mary Magdalene. When Jesus saw his mother there, and the disciple whom he loved standing nearby, he said to his mother, "Dear woman, here is your son," and to the disciple, "Here is your mother." From that time on, this disciple took her into his home.

John 9:2527

Imagine how Mary felt when she walked away from her son at the cross. In the midst of His torturous death, Jesus understood His mother's pain.

Questions for Journaling or Discussion

1. Where are you in your empty nest transition? Has your firstborn or your youngest child left home? Are you at the beginning, in the middle, or at the end of the process?

2. Have you allowed yourself to grieve? Healthy grief work requires time. Some mothers are paralyzed with grief when a child leaves home; others take the changes reasonably in stride. Where are you on the continuum?

3. Read Psalm 77:16 in addition to reviewing the preceding verses. I call Psalm 77 the "Griever's Psalm." Respond to 77:56:

My thoughts went back to times long past,

I remembered forgotten years;

all night long I was in deep distress,

as I lay thinking, my spirit was sunk in despair.

The New English Bible

4. If possible, talk with your own mother about your departure from home. To give you some perspective, compare her feelings with your feelings as a young person.

5. What do you miss most about your child? Late night chats? Helping with homework? Cooking you son's favorite foods? Going to the movies or shopping with your daughter? The chaos of teenagers coming in and out of your home? Be specific. Write a letter to your child that you will never send.

6. Reality check: What do you not miss? Emotional explosions? Anger? Arguing about curfew? Money conflicts? Unexpected hysteria? A messy bedroom? Be honest.

Excerpted from:
When You're Facing the Empty Nest by Mary Ann Froelich
Copyright 2005; ISBN 0764200186
Published by Bethany House Publishers
Used by permission. Unauthorized duplication prohibited.