Coping With An Empty Nest

Coping With An Empty Nest

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Written by: 
Published:
October 1, 2021

It was early September and my wife and I were dropping our daughter off at Shenandoah Valley Academy in Virginia to start her senior year. As we reluctantly began our thirteen-hour journey home, I took a parting glance back and saw her blonde hair bouncing on her shoulders as she climbed the front steps of the girl’s dorm.

The sadness I felt was mixed with a heavy dose of anger. We had always planned on our daughter being home for her senior year at a local Adventist school. But she had experienced an overwhelming amount of stress during her Junior year because the incompetent administration had somehow managed to alienate the entire student body. We knew our precious daughter had to find a better educational environment.

On our first morning back from Shenandoah, I absent-mindedly stepped into our daughter’s bedroom to say, “Time to rise Sunshine!” But the bed was still made and empty. I took a long look around at the familiar books, trophies, and stuffed animals, then turned away.

My wife and I decided that we should wait a few days to call her. We didn’t want to aggravate her home-sickness. Plus, our own sense of loss was much too raw.          

After three days, we couldn’t wait any longer. I told my wife, “Let’s call her tonight and cheer her up.” We both choked back our gloom. After three rings she answered.

I faked an upbeat tone, “Hi Sweety, how’s it going?”     

“Oh, great dad!” she replied cheerily. “I’ve made several friends already and they have lots of extra-curricular stuff going on. I joined the band, signed up for basketball, and I love my teachers. They’re so supportive and affirming!”

Part of me felt, “Hey, doesn’t she miss us just a little?” But then I thought, “How wonderful.”

After our second visit in late October, we were half-way home when we decided to stop for lunch. Once our meal arrived, I inexplicably started sobbing onto my lovely grilled cheese sandwich and fries.

“What’s the matter Kim?” Ann inquired with deepening concern.

“I really don’t know. All of a sudden I just can’t stop crying,” I replied.

Eventually the tears dried up and I ate the rest of my soggy meal.

When we got back on the road, I tried to figure out why on earth I was bawling my eyes out at the restaurant? By now you’d think I’d have adjusted somewhat, but it only seemed to be getting worse.

As we continued traveling, the answer came to me in a flash. Part of our visit had been spent watching our daughter play on the basketball team. I watched from the bleachers as the players leaned into a huddle. I had been the one who taught her how to shoot and dribble. We had played countless games of one-on-one in our back yard. I had been assistant coach during her freshman, sophomore, and junior years.

Now someone else was doing the coaching. Someone else was speaking into her life and guiding her. It was the perfect metaphor for my new place in my daughter’s life—the bleachers, cheering her on from the sidelines. All of that deep inner sadness came spilling out over grilled cheese.

What we were experiencing is officially known as “Empty Nest Syndrome.” With only one child, our nest emptied overnight.

As Patricia Jones describes it, “All of a sudden the house is quiet, the phone hardly rings, there are no more school events to go to, no more prom dresses to buy, and no more groups of teenagers spending the night.” [1]

Dr. Magdalena Battles writes, “[Parents] have spent their days making meals, acting as chauffeur for all of the kids’ activities, and spending countless hours attending games, plays, and school functions. The parent whose life revolves around the lives of their offspring will definitely have emotions tied to the child leaving home.” [2]

A range of emotions is very normal. A deep sense of loss that triggers the grief cycle. Guilt for the times you were less than a perfect parent. Worry for the child’s safety and ability to fend for themselves. Even relief from the daily hassles and pressures.

Single parents can be especially prone to an acute sense of loneliness, being left with no one else in the house to commiserate with, lean on, and fill the void.

Learning how to cope with Empty Nest Syndrome can involve three significant transitions.

1.   The first transition is with yourself.  Depending on how involved you have been outside the home, you may be dealing with a loss of identity. You may need to look for a job, develop new friendships, take up a new hobby, get involved in volunteering and service, find new opportunities for entertainment, start traveling more, etc. It is best to find activities that involve others. Whatever your situation, find something that makes you feel valued and provides a new sense of purpose.

2.   The second transition is with your spouse. It is not unusual for a couple to become so focused on caring for their children that, over the years, their connection with each other lessens. It is important now to mutually recognize that fact and take time to re-build the relationship.

You may each experience empty nest in different ways. Openly discuss how each of you feels, and make an effort to understand and appreciate your partner’s experience. Hopefully you can agree to strengthen your relationship and take concrete steps to even take it to a new level. 

3.   The third transition is your relationship to your child. It is now vital that parents step away from relating to their offspring as a child and start treating them as adults with whom they have a deep friendship. Failure to do that can easily cause problems if they insist on staying in the parental role.

Jesus faced that issue with his mother Mary. Word got back to her that Christ and his disciples were so busy that they often didn’t even have time to eat. In the gospel of Mark we read, “When his family heard about this, they went to take charge of him, for they said, ‘He is out of his mind.’” (Mark 3:21 NIV, emphasis added)

The whole family showed up to do what we might today call an “intervention” and drag him home. Jesus understood that his relationship to his mother had now changed and commented, “’Who are my mother and brothers?’ he asked. Then he looked at those seated in a circle around him and said, ‘Here are my mother and my brothers! Whoever does God's will is my brother and sister and mother.’"  (Mark 3:31-35 NIV)

Once the child leaves home, it is best to only offer advice when asked. Apart from that, you simply love and accept.

Parents can take genuine pride in the fact that their child is making their way in the world. The only time they should indulge in regrets is if they had ever intentionally tried to harm them during the growing up years. If not, it is time to move on, to put the past behind them and look forward to this new relationship and phase of life. Relating to your child as an adult can be especially rewarding and fulfilling.

Our daughter is now an assistant professor at a local university, and we have the joy of sharing Saturday lunch together most weekends. My wife and I thoroughly enjoyed our relationship to her as a child and teenager. But we love this phase of our relationship far more.

 

Notes & References:

[1] Patricia Jones. M.A., “The Empty Nest,” Empty Nest Syndrome Online Counseling.

[2] Dr. Magdalena Battles, “How to Cope With Empty Nest Syndrom and Be Happy Again,” Lifehack, November 26, 2020.

 


Kim Allan Johnson retired in 2014 as the Undertreasurer of the Florida Conference. He and his wife Ann live in Maitland, Florida. Kim has written a number of articles for SDA journals plus three books published by Pacific Press: The GiftThe Morning, and The Team. He has also written three sets of small group lessons for churches that can be viewed at www.transformyourchurch.com (this website is run by the Florida Conference of Seventh-day Adventists). He is also the author of eight "Life Guides" on CREATION Health.

Kim has recently started an exciting new ministry to teachers at www.hi54teachers.com, which is currently accepting donations. Read an interview about this organization here.

Photo by dabatepatfotos from Pexels

 

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