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From Full House to Empty Nest: Navigating Grief When Your Children Leave Home

Updated: Feb 20

Most parents can remember that special moment when they brought their new baby home for the first time. As parents, they prepared diligently to make the new baby feel comfortable and safe. The parent’s passionate desire was to ensure that all of the hopes and dreams of their new-born child would be realized. This beautiful and fragile new life had been entrusted to them. As parents they made a tacit pledge to love, provide for and protect this precious young life.

A couple who may need Christian counseling in 60637 to navigate grief when children leave their home

With such a committed promise, they become totally immersed in their child’s life, and that of their siblings as the family grew. First, it was feedings at all times of the day and night; finding the best daycare provider; finding the freshest food and the highest rated bottles, strollers, sunscreen – oh, and of course the best Pediatrician their budget can bear.  

And, that’s just the first few weeks! Then like an enthusiast, you became committed to documenting every stage of your child’s life through photos, videos and stories, sharing them with anyone who would stand still for just 5 minutes. And, you knew everyone was just as enthralled with your child as you, so it was your responsibility to document each stage of development via email blasts to those far and near. It was their first steps, play-dates, first day of school, pee wee sports, dance and music classes and recitals, childhood spats & “it’s not fair tantrums,” child-chosen vacations, middle school, the first job, summer enrichment activities, junior and high school engagements, first loves, college test prep, junior and senior prom, and finally graduation.

You, as parent, not only had a ring-side seat at every step, you were in the game! You encouraged and coached them to walk, recorded it and sent the video to your global community. You attended every church event, school play, recital and signed up to volunteer in all of these. Your Saturdays and Sundays weren’t your own. They were committed to shuttling your offspring to every event to which they and you had signed up. 

Even after discovering at 9 pm that your child had signed you up to provide cupcakes for the next day, you stayed up to 12 pm making cupcakes that would put the other parents to shame. You did their homework, under the guise of helping them. You helped them memorize the scriptures they were assigned. You gave up your hobbies and interests in lieu of supporting theirs. Your life was so full, that you just asked for one good weekend of “me” time. But over time, without realizing it, your friends had become the parents of your children’s friends and teammates. So, what did you discuss when you had your adult “me” time - your children and their lives! 

Then suddenly, it’s time for them to leave the nest, be it college, trade school, a gap year, a job . . . Whichever, they were leaving you with this gigantic void to fill, which previously they had taken up! For some parents, this is a delightful occasion.  It reminds me of the commercial where the parents are standing outside their home, looking tearful as their child drives off to college in a car stuffed to overload. They were the epitome of the perfect grieving parents of a newly independent youngster. As soon as the child’s car turned the corner, the parents began jumping up and down, laughing and high-fiving each other! The kid had flown the coop! 

Not so with many other parents. Their lives have been so intertwined with their children’s lives for so long, they have lost their individual identity.  For the past eighteen years, they have been Jillian’s mother, Antwone’s father, the PTA president, the steadfast mom or dad who would volunteer for any role at school or church – and so much more, but all related to their child. Although in the back of their minds the parents knew that this day would come – that their fledgling would grow up and leave the nest, it still catches them by surprise. 

The actual departure, the loosening of the bond, the empty weekend schedule, the lack of personal identity or hobbies, brings tremendous emptiness, loneliness, grief and mourning! We characterize this as the “Empty Nest Syndrome.” It is natural that parents experience an emotional tug when their child moves out and moves onto the next step, but most find ways to cope and move forward.  But for the “empty nesters,” the departure of their child results in deep emotional turmoil.

This occurs with people from all walks of life.  However, in this blog, we will provide spiritual insights and practical coping methods to help parents who are challenged at this stage of their life as a parent, to move forward in their journey from Christian perspective.  

Key Definition

"Empty Nest Syndrome" refers to the feelings of grief, loneliness, and sadness that parents may experience when their children move out of the family home, typically due to reaching adulthood or pursuing higher education. This phase often coincides with the transition to an empty (childless) or near-empty household, leading to a sense of loss and adjustment for parents.

Characteristics of Empty Nest Syndrome:

A couple who may need Christian counseling in 60637 to navigate grief when children leave their home

“Empty Nest Syndrome” can cause emotional distress, including a range of emotions from sadness, loneliness, depression, and an overwhelming sense of loss. When children leave the household, parents are forced to face significant changes as their lives have been wrapped up in their child’s life, which means they must now grapple with the absence of these daily interactions. This absence is not as simple as, “I miss my son or daughter,” it actually creates great emotional distress for parents.

The “Empty Nest Syndrome” challenges parents to face an identity shift – which is daunting as an adult. In the past, parents may have defined themselves through their roles as caregivers, facilitators, the most fun or supportive parent. Thus, with these identities suddenly stripped away, the “Empty Nest” stage requires them to reevaluate and find new purpose in life – new focus, new skills, new interests, and additional friends.

Moreover, "Empty Nest Syndrome" can result in marital relationship challenges. Two critical dynamics become central for parents as children move on. After sharing the home with children for many years, many parents suddenly find that they now have a void created by the absence of their child. They may have grown apart, unaware, as they focused their total attention on their child. Now, without their child to fill this time in their lives, they may find themselves struggling over what to do in their own relationship: spouse to spouse instead parent to child. These are some of the issues with which many parents have struggled:

“We’ve always wondered whether we’d stay together once our kids left the house. Now, the time is here and we’re not sure what to do.”

“It’s never been a perfect marriage; why not just find what makes us most happy now that we’re not raising children anymore?”

It is further complicated by the dynamics for each parent as their relationship with their child changes. This too is a daunting challenge as the parents need to grapple with adapting to having independent adult children, where their involvement is not only less needed, but less desired. As each parent may adapt and deal with this dynamic in a totally different manner, this too can impact the relationship between the parents.

How to cope with “Empty Nest Syndrome”

1. Acknowledge and address emotions, fostering open communication

The first step in coping with “Empty Nest Syndrome” is acknowledging and addressing the emotions associated with this stage of parenting - from feelings of loss to feelings of fear. Parents should understand that the way to address these emotions is by affirming that they are real, and sharing these emotions with someone. Additionally, the parents may need to talk with their children about how they are feeling and develop a mutual plan to stay connected so that parents can slowly let go. 

While “Empty Nest Syndrome” is often associated with negative emotions, it's essential to recognize that it can also be an opportunity for personal growth, renewed focus on the couple's relationship, and the pursuit of individual interests.

2. Move From Mourning To Coping With “Empty Nest Syndrome”

This syndrome takes a toll on parents as they must now find new ways to relate to and adjust to each other. They may set aside time to focus on simply being alone together, rediscovering shared interests and creating new ones. They should be mindful to shift their communication from “all about our child,” to “much about us as a couple.” It’s important to recognize that different coping mechanisms may be necessary and helpful for each parent. There is no “one size fits all” in this process. If the parents communicate and accept that their path to the same place may be different, it may help to reduce the conflict that may ensue in adapting to their empty nest.

3. Meditate On Comforting Scriptures

The following are some passages that may provide great comfort as you are managing through this necessary life change.  

Philippians 4:6-7 (NIV): "Do not be anxious about anything, but in every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus."

Proverbs 3:5-6 (NIV): "Trust in the Lord with all your heart and lean not on your own understanding; in all your ways submit to him, and he will make your paths straight."

4. Seek Additional Support

Individual Counseling can provide individual therapy sessions to help parents navigate their emotions, grief, and identity shifts.

Couples Counseling can assist parents in improving communication, addressing conflicts, and finding new ways to connect as a couple.

Support Groups made up of other empty nesters can offer a sense of community and understanding, allowing parents to share experiences and coping strategies.

It's important for parents to acknowledge their feelings, communicate openly with each other, and seek support from christian counselors or support groups as needed. Everyone's experience is unique, and the key to overcoming this syndrome is to navigate the transition together with Bible-based principles, resilience and mutual understanding.


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