The Lonely Nest

It can be tough on parents when their children leave home, so it is important to make the most it while they are still around

a single unoccupied made bedI can hear my youngest daughter calling me to come and play dollies with her, but I’m really pushed for time as I am taking the unusual opportunity of actually hoovering my teenage son’s bedroom whilst he is away on his first school residential with PGL (Parents Get Lost), before I do the school run for my other son. Initially the relief from stumbling across discarded socks, magazines, pants and sweet wrappers when tidying his bedroom was a pleasant novelty, but after a few days a part of me has begun to miss it and him (ok, maybe not the pants). I have found myself absently wandering into his bedroom and noticing the little traces of him around the house, such as Xbox games strewn over the desk, and his baseball cab wedged down the side of the sofa.

It led me to thinking about how it might feel when he finally does flee the nest. Granted I still have two younger children, dutifully creating lots of mess and driving me crazy at times, but what will life be like when they are off following their own paths to college, university, marriage and the like?

The ’empty nest syndrome’ label tries to encapsulate the feelings of loneliness, sadness and loss that many mothers experience when their children leave home. Kim Kimmse Toth (letlifein.com) suggests several ways to combat this condition: renew your marriage vows; relish the time alone; reignite or begin new friendships; broaden your horizons; find something meaningful and of value.

These are all great ideas and are worth investigating, but what about actually feeling the grief and pain first? The problem with suppressed, ignored feelings is they tend to come out sideways, so you may find yourself bursting into absolute floods of tears during a touching TV advert or swearing menacingly at another driver who causes you to brake unexpectedly.

We can see Kübler-Ross’s grief cycle of denial, anger, bargaining, grief and acceptance at work through the process of children leaving home. For example, not wanting to believe your child has become an equal man or woman (denial); explosive rages when boundaries are not adhered to (anger); manipulating them in some way to get them to spend more time at home (bargaining); inexplicably feeling very low each day (grieving); gradually letting go, albeit with a heavy heart, and embracing a new normal without them around, encompassing new or renewed activities and friendships (acceptance). This cycle does not happen methodically, rather it swings chaotically between each stage. With the right amount of love, support and empathy it gradually stops at acceptance as time moves on.

Often the sadness and grief may also be masking other feelings, such as a fear of having lost your identity once the children have gone. Questions such as ‘How can I fill my early evenings now?’ and ‘What do I actually have in common with my husband?’ may arise, bringing with them feelings of uselessness and uncertainty of the future. It is normal to have these questions, but a problem arises if the feelings become so intense that they begin to have a significant impact on daily life.

Thoughts such as ‘My life is no longer worth living’, being unable to stop crying, isolating yourself and avoiding friends, or beginning to hit the bottle increasingly early during the day may indicate that additional intervention, like counselling, may be required. Other unhealthy coping strategies may have started to emerge, such as spending an inordinate amount of time on the computer, overeating or shopping compulsively. Therapy may reveal whether this compulsive behaviour is just a temporary state or has become an addictive crutch that you need in order to get through each day.

Moving through this grief cycle in relation to children leaving home is just as important as building intimacy and commitment with a partner. No-one else can go through it for you – it’s your responsibility to experience it, feel the feelings and reach out for love and support. Loneliness, which so often accompanies grief, is such a difficult, listless emotion and often tricks us into feeling like outsiders, resulting in further isolation rather than seeking companionship.

The term ’empty nest’ doesn’t even seem entirely accurate. My husband and I will still be here, rolling around like a couple of marbles in a large tin. A ‘lonely nest’ feels more appropriate.

So now as I wander aimlessly around the house, looking at my son’s freckled little grin in old holiday photos or his first karate belt, I think of all the careless yesterdays they represent when I thought we had all the time in the world together. It’s not just that he is not here, it’s that the little boy he was is gone forever. I know I can’t stop the change, nor do I really want to, as it is part of life, but reaching that place of acceptance feels a long way away today.

Which is why I am going to stop now and get all the Disney princesses ready for the ball with my little girl.

Tracey Brittain

About Tracey Brittain

I obtained a BA Hons in Counselling at the University of Greenwich, gaining an in depth awareness of attachment issues in family systems. I am also a member of the British Association for Counselling & Psychotherapy. (BACP). I have been a counsellor within the NHS, and have worked for several years at a drug and alcohol agency seeing clients with substance issues. I also have a private practice, working with individuals, couples and young adults. Being an integrative counsellor means that I focus on the client’s relationships in their life, whilst occasionally drawing on approaches such as Psychodynamic, Gestalt, CBT, and sometimes Art Therapy or using objects. I also support 12-step program work.