Graduation of a child from high school and leaving home for college can be jarring. The silence and new daily routines create an intense time of adjustment that can last several months or more.
With parent weekends upon us, and Thanksgiving and Winter breaks soon after, what better time to check in, to make sure you can best handle these reunions and departures.
To that end, I might suggest you apply a compassionate strategy for managing the devastation of loss gleaned from Elisabeth Kubler-Ross's, classic book, On Death and Dying: What the dying have to teach doctors, nurses, clergy and their own families (1969).
While not a literal death, an empty nest is a game changing passage from one developmental stage to another. Kubler-Ross was brilliant in coming up with DABDA, which is an acronym for Denial (and Isolation), Anger, Bargaining, Depression and Acceptance.
Sorting out grief by paying attention to these steps has proven to be useful by many. These steps lend predictability to what feels and looks like an unmanageable situation. Let's try to apply DABDA to the empty nest to shine a light on the experience. See if it fits for you.
Denial and Isolation: Without my role as parent, I am nothing.
Adolescents on the verge of young adulthood need you differently. If you take a step back you allow the child to take necessary risks to step forward, wrestling a grown up identity into being.
Not doing so may mirror the child's worst fears that he or she is inept or an impostor. Unintentionally you may send the wrong message of doubt and interfere with their ability to launch.
The Fix: Put on a game face. Use the empty space challenge to explore your own, perhaps hidden yearning for a new or renewed connection to deferred hopes and dreams for yourself in this phase. Check that you do not project and displace anxieties around inadequacy and inferiority onto your child.
Anger: Not letting go without complaints of being ignored or disrespected.
The danger here is a role reversal. The child may resent having to take care of you, when there is plenty the child needs to be doing to take care of him or herself.
The Fix: Explore the hurts fueling the anger outside of the parenting relationship. Not having to take care of you restores a healthy boundary for the child to test his or her emerging sense of a young adult identity.
Bargaining: Dependence binds us. We need each other to function.
This is where co-dependence and guilt can become a problem and can slip into depression.
The Fix: No matter how much affection and good will, combined with the desire to guide, the forming adult needs to figure out much on their own. They will disappoint you and themselves, and that is a good place from which to grow.
Acceptance: You no longer hold the reins, though present to cheer mostly from the side lines and provide guidance and reflection when your opinion is requested.
The child may want to make some holiday plans that include you, but only partially. Undue pressure and unsolicited advice often backfires. In the meantime tending to your own next stages of growth sets a good example for the younger generation. Chances are your life requires attention.
Try if you can to revisit earlier times of departure and return. Ask yourself: When was the last time I felt vital and alive? Perhaps it was the time you started a career or family. Go back a step further when you were the age your child is now.
What were your hopes and dreams then? What can still be mined from that time? What talents hidden or put aside for a generation can be taken off the shelf, dusted off and put back into use in your own middle-essence as you consciously age?
As well respected as Kubler-Ross's stage theory is, it has been criticized for being a set of categories artificially isolated and separately described so that the author could make her arguments clearly and simply. It should be noted Kubler-Ross warned that many of these stages overlap, occur together, vary in length, or are missed entirely.
I find DABDA most helpful if understood less as a linear step-by-step program, one step finished before another gained, and more like a dynamic flow. Sadness and grief comes in waves and recedes the same way. Just when you think one phase is over, it can return, albeit differently.
None of this is meant to be a substitute for therapy. It may give you a flavor for how I work as a therapist. If you are hurting, do not ignore the pain. Reach out to friends and family, and others who may also be going through the same thing or have been through it.
If necessary, get professional help and do not hesitate if you are experiencing suicidal ideation or intent. Stay tuned as I will be writing more on the subject of managing your empty nest in blogs to come.