By Rick Ezell
After Bill and Jane saw Jessica through four years at the local university, she now was ready to journey into the next chapter of her life—a job in another state, many miles from home. Jane and Jessica had been inseparable as mother and daughter. Now, for the first time in 22 years, they would be apart. Jane felt like a limb had been amputated. Bill grieved.
In much the same way as birds leave the nest, children move away from home for college, military service, marriage, or job relocation. When it happens, parents often experience grief, loneliness, depression, purposelessness, anxiety, and feelings of rejection.
A void is left when children move out. Searching for a new identity begins. Mothers, often the primary caregivers, are more likely than fathers to experience these feelings, though fathers often feel guilty for not being more involved in their children’s lives.
Many parents experience a crisis of sorts when their kids leave home. The Chinese language uses two characters to form the word crisis: one means danger, the other opportunity. A crisis can blindside you, bringing pain and added hurt, or it can provide an opportunity, leading you to a new adventure and a new season. The outcome depends on your response. You can chose to give up or you can chose to go on.
Give Up or Go On
Deborah said goodbye to her daughter Carla when she shipped off to Afghanistan for a year’s deployment with the Army Reserve. Deborah decided to use the time to devour God’s Word, looking for promises and inspiration to sustain her each day. She found the Bible filled with stories about people who faced crisis, relocation, and transition. It was their faith that held them up and kept them going. Deborah trusted God for Carla’s safety.
Faith is our foundation and source of strength. Our faith is made strong in the struggle. Separation can be one of the greatest fights. God never promised life would be easy, but he did promise he would be present. We trust him during loss and separation and he provides the strength to go on.
Withdraw or Connect
When sad and lonely, the human tendency is to isolate ourselves from others, going into hiding.
Jim had a great relationship with his son Bobby. Jim had been his coach as Bobby developed into an exceptional tennis player. Bobby received a scholarship to play tennis at a west coast university. It was a wonderful opportunity, not only for his tennis career but for the strong academics the college offered—even if it meant leaving family behind in the east.
For weeks Jim struggled to find himself, missing the afternoon workouts with his son or traveling to watch a match. Jim felt lost, lonely, and ill-prepared for the empty spot in his heart and in his days. He sulked for weeks until his wife, Barbara, said, “Jim, you are driving us all crazy with your Eeyore imitation. Why don’t you go down to the courts to find someone to hit tennis balls?”
The next afternoon Jim went to the courts and found a group of guys looking for a fourth to play doubles. One of the guys, Steve, had a young son who needed some coaching. Knowing Jim’s success with Bobby, he asked if Jim would work with his son. It was the perfect situation for Jim—playing and coaching.
The empty nest provides the opportunity to pursue hobbies and interests. It also allows time to foster new friendships and use your gifts to help others. Friends are an important part of the transition from full-time parent to a person at home without children. Meeting new people fills the empty holes in the relationship dance card. Activities keep our minds occupied.
Grow Together or Grow Apart
If married, the empty nest often proves a challenge. If the child or children have been the glue holding the marriage together, the departure of a child may reveal the crack in the relationship. Sometimes weak marriages can’t sustain the loss of a child’s presence. Yet this season of life can be the ingredient needed to strengthen the relationship and reconnect with your mate.
Jeff, a businessman, told me that when their kids left home he took his wife on a second honeymoon. “It was the perfect time to get away,” he said. “We used the time away to rediscover our love, to talk about the changes that would come with the transition, and to determine what we would do in the next chapter of our lives.” Jeff realized that life goes on with or without children. He and his wife determined to revive the feelings of closeness and to rely on each other for emotional support. The empty nest rejuvenated their marriage.
Explore the Positives or Bemoan the Negatives
My friend Jason reluctantly—and with some embarrassment—told me that having the kids out of the house was a great thing. In fact, he said, “I feel a bit guilty. I have time to explore opportunities I had put on hold early in life. And I have more money because I’m no longer paying tuition.”
Jill, mother of three, said that when her last daughter moved out, “I got my bathroom back.” James, a used car dealer, was overheard to say after his third child left home, “I feel sad, but I don’t feel sorry. I will always miss my kids. The house is sometimes too quiet. But I feel extremely proud for having raised three children capable of entering the world as productive citizens with strong Christian convictions.”
The positives include: time to rest, exercise, return to work, travel, and explore your passion.
Focusing on the positive changes resulting from your children moving out eases the sense of loss. This response does not belittle your sadness, nor diminish the weight of the transition you and your child are experiencing, but it does help you see the other side. It provides a positive opportunity. In fact, you should pat yourself on the back for having raised a child who is equipped and ready to go it on his own.
Hold On or Let Go
In Paul Tournier’s A Place for You (HarperCollins, 1968), the famous author depicted Christian hope as a leap of faith. He said we live in a rhythm of life between quitting one place and seeking another.
He used the analogy of a trapeze artist swinging on a high bar to the utmost distance it can carry him, then turning loose and reaching hopefully and courageously for the next bar. There is a breathless suspense of mid-air placelessness.
This is the anxiety of faith. It calls for hope. Everyone is holding his breath—the artist as well as the watching crowd—until the transition is safely made. The transition will never be made unless the trapeze artist (or the person of faith) finds enough hope to let go of the past and take the leap of faith.
In a real sense, the parent facing the empty nest is faced with the same dilemma. Your relationship with your children has been one of letting go: letting go of the bicycle as they rode alone, letting go of their hand as they walked into school, letting go of the door as they walked out on their first date, letting go of the keys as they drove the car for the first time without you.
The empty nest is another letting go. Consider the alternative: Do you want your child living with you for life? Do you want dependents forever? A huge part of parenting is the act of letting go. Celebrate it.
Rick Ezell is a minister and freelance writer in Greer, South Carolina.
Finding Fulfillment in the Empty Nest
10 Great Dates for Empty Nesters
by David Arp and Claudia Arp
Barbara & Susan’s Guide to the Empty Nest: Discovering New Purpose, Passion & Your Next Great Adventure
by Barbara Rainey and Susan Yates
“Celebrating the Empty Nest” by Carol Kuykendall
“Facing the Empty Nest” by Mary Ann Froehlich
“The Joys of an Empty Nest” by Salley Sutmiller, M.S. and Lois Trost, M.S.W.