Your youngest child is off to college. You’ve gone from the frenetic energy of planning, purchasing, and decorating to the disquieting emptiness of your childless home: no mess, no dirty laundry, no friends showing up announced and emptying your fridge. You’re miserable.
There’s also an onslaught of emotions that come with the reality that you will not see your child every day, you will not be there to make sure they eat, sleep, study, or stay safe. You’re left feeling an acute loss at their absence, but empty nesting doesn’t have to feel like a death sentence.
Done mindfully, this can become an exciting and fulfilling chapter of your life. Following the four steps below will make you love your life again. Maybe even more than before.
Four steps to loving your empty nest
1. Allow yourself to feel the loss
This is the most challenging of the four steps. Like with any loss, the process is personal. The method, the pace, the length of time…only you can know what works and when is enough. It is essential to honor your needs.
Permit yourself to do whatever feels right for as long as you need until you feel better. Your response is normal and healthy.
You might try to avoid the discomfort by talking yourself out of your sorrow. Watching other people move through it differently or faster. Rationalizing that everything is as it should be, that this is what every parent wants for their child, independence and sufficiency.
And while all that may be true, I caution you about using certain truths against yourself. It won’t serve your healing. Now is a time to treat yourself with the utmost kindness and patience. (Think of how you cared for your child when they were sick. Do that for yourself.)
Focus on your comfort — Warm baths, cups of hot tea, reading, naps, and your favorite foods. Whatever works for you.
Find support — Family or friends who are experiencing what you are. Or, even better, have already been there and can provide a perspective beyond the immediate feelings of loss and fear of change. They can offer a larger perspective and show you what is possible once the grieving is done.
Feel your feelings — Let the waves of emotions take you over. Don’t hold back. If you cut them short or shove them down, they will only fester and keep coming up for attention. If you let yourself stay with the discomfort each time the feelings come and let them move through your body until they dissolve on their own, they will, in time, come less frequently and less intensely. Remember the relief you feel after a wave of painful emotion has passed. It might help you get through the next one.
2. Challenge painful thoughts and beliefs
In Buddhism, there is a saying, “Pain is inevitable. Suffering is optional.” In life, there is always going to be pain. But it’s important to consider that it is not the painful events that cause our suffering, it is the thoughts we attribute to the event that does.
In the coaching world, we call this “Clean pain vs. Dirty pain.” The clean pain is the event itself. The death of someone you love. A physical injury or loss of ability. The loss of a job. In this case, it’s the empty nest. On its own, clean pain is something we heal from naturally, with time.
Dirty pain is the thoughts we tell ourselves about the pain itself. For empty nesting, the thoughts might be, “I should’ve been a better parent,” or “Can my child handle being on their own?” “What will I do now, I have no marketable skills.” “I no longer have a purpose.” These thoughts and worries take much longer to heal from.
The key is to learn how to discern between clean and dirty pain. And then…
Separate the thoughts/worries from the event. Write them all down. Ask yourself these questions for each one:
Is it true now? Be honest with yourself. Worries are future-focused, not present, so they are not true. And anxiety about how your child has behaved is in the past. Not true now. It’s important to stay focused on what is true today — this moment.
If a thought is true now, determine what is within your control and decide what you want to do about it — change it, repair it, improve it or let it be. If something is not within your control, you must be willing to let go of it. It’s the only way to find peace.
Often the thoughts we tell ourselves are just stories. Habit, a reason to worry, to self-criticize. And they cause harm because they distract us from feeling (and healing) the actual pain of the event.
Is it serving me? Even if the thought is true but doesn’t serve you to believe it, then don’t. None of us are perfect. We’ve all made mistakes. It’s what we learn from our mistakes and do with that knowledge that’s important. So what can you learn?
If the thought is not serving you and you don’t even think it’s true, get rid of it. Drop it — end of story.
What would I rather believe? This is so important. Come up with some thoughts that you can tell yourself instead. Thoughts that will help you heal that feel true as well as kind. “I did the best I knew how to do at the time.” “I have skills and can find a use for them.” “My mistakes do not define me.” “If I want to do something, I can find a way.”
When you are finished, you will have a list of thoughts you’d rather believe. Review them. Practice them. And then, review them and practice them again until you believe them more than the ones you started with.
Celebrate: Once you’ve shifted your perspective to possibility, it’s time to celebrate that your child is exactly where they are supposed to be. That if college was the goal, you helped get them there. And trust that you taught them what they needed to know to be on their own. Trust their journey. It will be imperfect…and they will learn and grow as they find their independence (as will you).
3. Find your joy
Remember back to your childhood when you were doing something you loved, and hours flew by? You were so satisfied being where you were, doing what you were doing, you needed nothing else? You were in the zone, in flow. What was that thing for you? Was it drawing, playing sports, bike riding, dancing, baking, writing, reading, or chemistry experiments?
Bring some of that joy back into your life now. Take a class, find a pickup game or a team, read the books stacked on your nightstand, and take bike rides. Maybe you’ve dreamed of starting a business or learning a new skill or hobby. Now you have the time, find the communities that do those things and make a call. Go there.
Write a list of all the things that make you happy and take one small step toward making them a reality. And then one more small step. Getting yourself on the path is the hardest part.
Reacquaint yourself with your partner or your friends. Deepen the relationships you have. If you don’t have a partner and you want one, take the steps to find one (usually by doing what brings you joy).
Challenge the thoughts that hold you back from having joy in your life. Go back to Step 2 and ask yourself those questions about what holds you back from the things you love to do. You can choose to believe the thoughts that get in your way, or you can choose to explore them, get curious, and then create new thoughts that help you create the life you want. You are in control.
4. Focus on your future
Now that you know what brings you joy, and what you want to spend time doing, you’re ready to take it one step further.
Visualize your future in great detail. Here’s a writing prompt I have used successfully with my clients and one that I found very powerful on my journey as an empty nester.
Have paper and pen handy…
Imagine yourself in the future 5-10 years from now. A friend calls you up who you haven’t been in touch with. They ask how you’re doing, and you say, “OMG, I can’t believe how great my life is, I never imagined I could be so happy…”
Write your life in detail, from when you wake up in the morning to when you go to sleep at night. Remember, it’s a regular day, nothing out of the ordinary, but it’s ideal. Exactly what you dream of. Positive, beautiful, happy.
Where are you living? Detail the home and its surroundings.
Who, if anyone, is with you? How well do you treat each other?
What are you doing with your days? How do you occupy yourself?
Use your senses to describe it — What does your environment look and smell like? What do the textures feel like? Is it quiet, noisy, or close to the sounds of nature? What does your food or drink taste like?
This is your vision. Have fun with it. Let your imagination fly. Let it feel good. Satisfying. Dreamy.
Find the feeling and introduce it into your life today. Now, as you did with joy, pick one thing, or more if you choose, from the vision and bring it into your present life. It can be small, and easy. A candle you imagined smelling in your vision, a new coffee mug, new linens.
The visualization may take some time to come to fruition, and you may not get everything you dreamed of, but having a vision sets an intention in your brain, and you will find yourself moving toward satisfying those desires.
Creating a blueprint or a roadmap can help you determine your way to the life you want. When you lose sight, refer back to your vision and let it remind you and inspire you to focus on what will get you there.
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