Natalie Caine spent 15 years as a speech and language therapist for the Los Angeles school district before going into private practice. In the early 1980s, she organized her first women’s support group to deal with life changes. When her daughter was a junior in high school, Caine saw the empty nest looming and started a new support group for empty nesters that turned into a full-time business of coaching, writing and speaking. She is currently working on a book titled Empty Nest: Life Beyond Parenting. Caine explains why the empty nest is so emotionally difficult to handle.
Am I okay? Is what I am feeling normal? How long will this pain last? How do I keep communicating with my children and not be invasive? How do I create a new community, now that the old community of school and activities is gone? How do I know what is next? Where do I find a passion since my deepest devotion of time and energy is no longer necessary?
All parents grieve as their roles change. Parents feel sorrow, depression and loneliness. You poured all this love and attention into your child and you don’t feel it coming back. You can’t compare how your neighbors grieve with the way you grieve, because you have your own experience of parenting. The bottom line is that you loved this person, and now they are gone.
There are ways to help ease the pain. Make a list of things to do when your house grows silent, titled “Here Are Five Things I’ve Longed to Do.” Begin a journal. Plan to have one or more friends over for tea or wine and comforting food. Schedule a massage for yourself. Send out postcards to friends saying you are going to have all this time and asking what they think would be valuable for you to do and contribute. Be open to their feedback.
Parts of you that were dormant will now emerge. It’s time to let life unfold before you. Stroll down an aisle in your bookstore you don’t usually walk down. Be spontaneous. Be flexible. Set intentions. Say: “Show me. Set me up to receive.” Have compassion for yourself. Try the arts—they are often the most healing. Try attending orchestra performances or rock concerts; taking piano lessons; or writing a book. Choose something to have on the calendar. Give permission to nurture yourself. Reevaluate who in your life feeds you and who depletes you.
This is a raw time, and there is nothing better than raw. We are like newborns, so we need to ask for help. We feel awkward. This is a phase of “I don’t know.” Also, as you go through this loss, it’s very natural for past losses to emerge.
There’s shock, anger, loneliness, fatigue and confusion. Then there is an emergence into “Wow! Free time!” as they sense the freedom they have longed for—and joy.
There is usually more isolation as a single parent. You invite people over for dinner, and they don’t invite you. You have to make more of an effort to create a community. You have to work at dating again. It’s definitely more challenging.
Journaling helps. Lists are great. Make lists of what you’re good at, what you enjoy doing and what other people say you’re good at. Send a letter to yourself about what you were good at as a mother or father. Make a list of 20 things you know you love to do and put them on Post-It notes; then you can move them from desk to refrigerator to car to remind you. Look at the people in your life. Take this opportunity to spend time with your nieces and nephews.
Have a community. Have someone to talk to. Don’t go through the pain alone. Exercise 10 minutes a day. If you like gardening but don’t have a garden of your own, offer to do some weeding and planting for your neighbor.
I am not alone, and this won’t last forever. Our fear is it will last forever—it won’t.
…finding new parts of myself. Getting out of my comfort zone.
Finding more of my creative self. Being able to make time for people I didn’t have time for before, like my nieces and nephews.
For more information on Natalie Caine, visit www.emptynestsupport.com.