Empty Nest Grief
In the past two weeks, I have attended two group events, one professional and one social. I met a middle-aged woman struggling with empty nest issues at each event. As I listened to them talk, it became apparent they had unrecognized grief around their children leaving home.
When Your Empty Nest Is Unbalanced
Once they finished speaking, I nodded in agreement with all they had described. And then I asked this question:
“Is it possible that you are experiencing empty nest grief? That would explain the sadness, the lack of focus, and the sense of loss you are describing to me.”
Both women had a look of shock on their faces; then they nodded with weepy agreement. Relieved that I had pinpointed their emotional experiences, they both wanted to spend some time talking more about their feelings.
Empty Nest Grief is NOT a Midlife Crisis
As a coach for midlife women, I have dedicated my time and education to identifying and understanding the common themes for this season of life. Empty nest issues are often misunderstood and deemed irrational by our culture.
Women are culturally conditioned from birth to function as a nurturer. Additionally, most women have internal drives that push us to create a socially safe place for our biological offspring. This would include a permanent partnership, usually in the form of marriage, and a solid sense of financial security.
Wired For Nurture, Women Often Have Empty Nest Grief
Despite the growing trend toward male partners increasing their childcare duties and household tasks, the bulk of creating a safe “nest” is handled by women. It is absurd to think that women can “shut off” the caregiver instinct after decades of identifying as a mother to her children.
Yet women often find themselves struggling with controlling behavior around their children. Our brain has helped us process millions of hours of mother-child interaction, and it is difficult to transition to a “friendship” with our children.
When children leave the home, a woman has most likely entered her menopausal years. It is a high irony to say goodbye to the people that have occupied most of your waking hours (and some nighttime ones as well) and then make emotional peace with your sagging skin and hot flashes.
It is like being a piece of outdated equipment stuck in the back of the warehouse after churning out thousands of sandwiches, wiping hundreds of noses, and folding millions of t-shirts.
Sorry mom. You were useful, and now you are not.
How to Identify Empty Nest Grief
Empty nest grief might look like the following:
- Sense of purposelessness
- Disappointment that life without kids at home isn’t that exciting
- Frustration around making meals that are too big
- Anger around missed opportunities/regrets that were a result of being a primary caregiver
- A longing to be seen as sexy and attractive by men/sexual partners
- Over-identifying with young adult activities to maintain a sense of connection with your kids
- Feeling bored, unsatisfied with your previous spare time hobbies/activities
- A sense of pervasive loneliness
- A desire to know details and have some control over the choices that your grown kids make
Most women will experience a type of grief when their children leave the home permanently.
Sharing Some of My Empty Nest Grief Story
My son moved out of state at the age of 20. It was a quick move, three weeks from his decision to the day he left. I functioned at high levels during those three weeks. Lists, packing, and sorting his things filled our days. He and I worked together to get him ready for his cross-country move.
After he left, I fell into a depression. Although I still had his older sister at home (preparing for her wedding), I couldn’t shake the feeling of emptiness. I cried more than I thought was normal. My eyelids were red and chapped from wiping away my tears.
The Tears Wouldn’t Stop
I carried so much shame around the emotions I was expressing. There was no one to talk to about it (I hadn’t discovered therapy yet). I was happy my son was living his life, but I felt discarded and old. I remember going to the Goodwill and finding a handheld mirror that had been part of a recovery program. I bought it because it felt like an answer in a sea of sadness. It had this saying etched on it:
If you are searching for the solution, look here.
The idea of looking inside me seemed impossible! I had no tools to discern my core emotions and identify the unhealthy messages I was aligning with.
I floundered for the next six months, then emotionally crashed when his sister got married.
The rest of my story includes starting therapy, making difficult life decisions, and committing to building a life that reflected me as a person, not just a caregiver.
I can honestly say that my life is highly rewarding now. I have learned to connect with what makes me happy and helps me feel fulfilled. I have come through the worst of empty nest grief, surviving and truly thriving!
When Empty Nest Grief Is Overwhelming
What should you do when the empty nest grief feels overwhelming? If you find yourself struggling with any of the above-mentioned behaviors for longer than six months, it’s time to get some help.
- Schedule a thorough physical, including bloodwork. Ask for hormone levels to be checked, including thyroid and adrenal glands. It is not uncommon for women to battle depressive symptoms due to hormone imbalance.
- Take a walk down memory lane. Find some time to focus on recalling the things that you loved as a pre-teen/early teen girl. If you have diaries or journals from this time, read through them for reminders of your younger self. Often our early interests are clues to our identity before we became mothers.
- Listen to music that defined your early high school years. Songs often unlock dreams and ideas that we put aside when we entered “adulting.”
- Immerse yourself in the “here and now.” As empty-nest women, we can spend a significant amount of time caught up in memories. Make a list of the good things that are here for you at this moment. Choose to express gratitude for this life that you have created.
- Work with a coach or therapist. If you continue to feel sad and stuck, seek out professional help. Look for someone with age-related experience and a solid understanding of the stages of grief. Feel free to contact me about my 1-1 coaching program.
Empty Nest Grief Is Real, But You Can Heal And Build A Satisfying Second Chapter
Please don’t ignore the signs of empty nest grief. It might seem ridiculous to admit that you are struggling with overwhelming emotions. The truth is, for most women, you have lost your biggest identity. Transitioning to a parent of adult children is challenging and can be a source of incredible discomfort.
For more help with Empty Nest emotions, please check out the following posts:
These posts will walk you through the basics of saying goodbye to “mom life “and will support you as you design a life you love!
Please email me (firstname.lastname@example.org)or DM me on Instagram to let me know how I can further help you balance your empty nest.
Make sure to sign up for my FREE guide to help you balance your empty nest!
Melane Ann is a writer, blogger, and life coach. In 2020, she turned her experience in midlife divorce and creating a new life for herself into midlifeismagical. With a master's in Marriage and Family Therapy, Melane focuses on helping women over 50 navigate their relationships and commit to healthy aging. She and her new husband share 7 children between them. Melane jokes that she has a black belt in blended families! In addition to her writing, Melane works virtually with her coaching clients from her home office.