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Healing from the Grief of the Empty Nest

Mourning the Loss of Parenting, and the Grief of the Empty Nest

empty nest pin

The first year empty nest hit, I think I counted each and every day “since he left for college.”

“He’s been gone two months and three days.” Then it was, “Five months and 17 days.” Then maybe, at around the nine month mark, I stopped counting. (The irony of that doesn’t escape me.) The new normal had hit. He was creating new relationships, new spaces to call home. Our home might be “big H” home for a little while longer, but he had little “h” homes that were sprouting all over everywhere.

His dorm room. An apartment. The fraternity house. Even the entire college campus became home.


I wrote about it in a post called “Separate Houses” on my then blog, Nest Ache. When I read it now, I sound a little pitiful. But that’s how it felt for a little while. He didn’t have much time — he was busy.

I no longer count days, or weeks. Sure, I remember how many months it’s been since we last laid eyes on each other. But I had to stop and think how many years it’s actually been since I was smelling his pillow or daily mourning his absence.

It was five years ago. No wait. Six.

How exactly did that happen? How did I emotionally travel from active grief to not exactly remembering how much time has passed?

How to Move from Grief to Appreciation


The motivation was simple. I didn’t want to sabotage the present. If I lived in the past, that’s exactly what would’ve happened. Feelings of emptiness needed to be replaced by feelings of contentment and anticipation.

Our relationship was changing and I needed to change along with it. I also needed to find a way to talk about my own expectations, something I may not have done as much when said child was living at home. It’s not that I hadn’t had expectations of him in the past. He needed to make curfew. He needed to text if he wasn’t going to make curfew, and tell me what was going on. But now, other expectations took their place.

I counseled a new empty nester this week. She was trying to figure out her own new normal, and how to communicate her desires and needs with her child. Here was the situation. Her college daughter would come home for the weekend, but would spend all her time with her friends, This had been the “norm” when she’d lived at home, so the daughter didn’t think too much about it.


But the mom’s world had changed. She didn’t see that bedhead kid groping her way down the stairs every morning. She no longer heard the door slamming in the late afternoon, followed by the almost immediate, “What’s for dinner?” The small glimpses of the child that’s within the almost grownup, the tender moments between past and present, were harder to catch.

Acknowledge What Is Gone

She missed those moments, those everyday, ordinary times.

But how do I talk to her about this when I don’t want to come across as demanding or needy?

As we were talking, I thought about what had happened over time with my own empty nest. I’d found a way to talk about my desire for my son’s time.


We needed agreements — a plan. No longer could we count on routine, or habits to offer our family the structure it had in the past. If I wanted his time, I needed to talk about it — and plan it.

What do I mean? With guests, friends, or even other family there would be a plan. “We know you’ve got a lot of things you want to do here. How about spending Saturday afternoon together?” Or, “I’ll make reservations for just you and me Friday night so we can catch up.” There were agree-upon plans. Expectations. Not rigid ones, mind you. But plans.

Without thinking about it too much, we began treating visits with our son the same way.

Our conversations began sounding like this. “We’re coming up this weekend. How about we all plan to spend family time together for Sunday brunch? Then the weekend’s open for anything else.”  Those kind of agreements honor the parents, who want a little “alone time” with their child. But also honor the fact that you’re stepping into your child’s world, where they’ve built relationships with their own patterns.


You may miss those times when things were more spontaneous. And they still might fall into place now. But plans? They can bring clarity.

And, perhaps most importantly, you’re not setting yourself up to feel rejected or ignored. You, as a parent, are relaying your own desires.

Of course, when partner or spouse comes along, and there’s another whole family to consider, eventually children, it all becomes more complicated. Yet it helps to have practiced on a less emotionally-laden field, to establish healthy patterns of communication long before there are more people involved.

We can all hope for dinners or outings that fall together seamlessly, that bring joy in their very spontaneity.


Yet you’re building trust and a more mature love with your almost grown child — when plans are honored, expectations are discussed openly, and agreements are kept — by both of you.

Click here for “Marriage Is Not For Chickens,” the new gift book by Dr. Margaret! It’s perfect for engagements, anniversaries, weddings, or for the person you love at any time!

You can hear more about empty nest and many other topics by listening to Dr. Margaret’s new podcast, SelfWork with Dr. Margaret Rutherford.

Looking for more Empty Nest advice? Read Can We Ever Get Used to the Empty Nest?

Margaret Rutherford

Dr. Margaret Rutherford is a clinical psychologist, who has practiced for over twenty years in Fayetteville, Arkansas. Since 2012, her writing has been found on her own website, as she writes about mental health, with a special focus on Perfectly Hidden Depression, midlife and relationship issues. She's the current mental health columnist for Midlife Boulevard, writes an advice column on Vibrant Nation, is a weekly columnist for The Good Men Project, and hosts a regular FB Live video session on depression for The Mighty. Her work and expertise can also be found on The Huffington Post, Sixty and Me, Better After 50, Reader's Digest, Prevention, Psychology Today, and The Cheat Sheet. Dr. Margaret recently has launched a new podcast, SelfWork with Dr. Margaret Rutherford, where you can listen to her direct and down-to-earth advice.

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