Since we first opened The Community for Learning, I’ve seen students in 12 graduating classes fly off to the next stage of their life — and I’ve watched their parents say good-bye to them. Parents who are happy to see their children living out their dreams, so proud of them, so excited for them. And yet… their hearts are breaking and most of them tell me that after dropping their child off at university, they cry all the way home. They feel a little ashamed of those tears, but they shouldn’t.
This is what I’d like to tell all of you new empty-nesters:
I know what you’re feeling. I know how hard it is. I’ve been there. On one hand, you’re so very pleased that your children have this wonderful opportunity. They worked hard in high school, they got the grades, they were accepted into university, and they’re thrilled to be out on their own. You really couldn’t be happier for them.
Yet, on the other hand, you’re brokenhearted. Graduation was a whirlwind, the move was busy and exciting, with little time to think. But now you’ve come home to the quiet. How do you make sense of these opposing emotions? When you confide in people about your feelings, about that empty hole inside yourself, the reaction is often, “You shouldn’t be sad. You should be happy for them.” Those words make you feel selfish, so you squash down your tears. You plaster on that phony smile and you try to ignore the loneliness. You cry in private and you stop confiding in people. Instead, you tell them how well your child is doing, how good things are, how happy you feel… even if it’s not 100% true.
I want to tell you: your tears are not selfish, your feelings are not egotistical. You are in mourning. Not for your child — of course, you’re incredibly happy for your child. But you are grieving for a stage of life that’s over. If you loved being a parent, having a toddler at your feet, a child to play with in the backyard or to read to at night, and an adolescent to argue with, you are going to miss that time of life. And you know it’s over forever. Even if your child comes home to live with you again, it will never be the same. They’re adults now, they’re making their own decisions, and they don’t need you in the way they used to.
So, take the time to grieve. Cry for those wonderful years that are gone. Live through the emotions. Tell your friends that you have a right to feel this way and that you need their support. They can’t take your sadness away, but they can allow you to express it. They can hug you and tell you they understand. Acknowledging your emotions and expressing them will help you get through this in a healthier way (and sometimes even faster.) Grief takes time and then grief fades. Eventually, you’ll look back on those parenting years with joy and a little nostalgia, but without sadness.
In the meantime, be gentle with yourself. Find someone who will listen. Take all the time you need. You’ll move on. I promise.