Empty Nesting with Curiosity and Compassion

This week my first ad on life coaching for empty nesting appears in the high school newspaper, which my daughters edited five years ago. The lessons of that time of life are still fresh for me. I want to help others as they move through the pain and loss of their kids going away to college, or moving out into the world in other ways.

In the book “Rising Strong,” Brené Brown, a shame researcher and storyteller, writes about loss, longing and feeling lost. Loss. Longing. Feeling lost. Each deserves its own period in my book; these are big concepts. Brown highlights the importance of really feeling the grief connected to transitions and how awkward and uncomfortable this experience is when we really take the time to feel it. Brown interviewed a father who was going through empty nesting:
“Everything was off . . . nothing felt normal. I wasn’t sure where to park my car at our house. He had his car with him, but I still left his space open. Setting the table for dinner was strange; walking down the hall past his room felt painful—we were completely lost and at the same time happy for him ad proud of his accomplishments. We didn’t know if we should laugh or cry. We’ve done a lot of both.”  

The loss of a family member, even if they are going on to better things like college or a new job, can feel odd after the excitement has worn off. Pain or fear may appear. Or sometimes guilt arises over the feeling of freedom that comes when we are no longer living under the same roof as our children. Many emotions come up as we grapple with this new arrangement. We remember what it was like for us when we left for the strange world of college. There is struggle to find a different place, a new place, where we relate to our children as adults who have their own free will to choose how to live their own lives. But why, we wonder, does it have to be so painful, especially if it’s such a “natural part of growing up?”

I remember when I was doing my certification to become an Enneagram teacher. My daughter was applying to colleges and we had a college trip planned. I was on a panel of Type 2s and we were talking about what was difficult about being so attuned to relationship. I told the interviewer, David Daniels, an 86-year-old psychologist from Stanford, that I felt an impending sense of doom when I thought about by my daughters leaving the nest. A tear travelled down my cheek as I spoke into the microphone. “I just feel so sad about losing them,” I explained. “The family the I’ve worked so hard to create is disappearing. I’m losing them.”

Dr. Daniels just nodded and listened. I could feel compassion and love as he took a deep breath. Then, with the utmost grace and dignity, he told me how hard it had been for him and his wife when their 22-year-old son was hit by a car and killed. “But he’s always in my memories, my bones, and right here.” He put his hand on his heart and smiled gently.

In that moment I felt my own heart opening. I could have compassion for his story and for mine. We were united in our humanity, in a sense of loss.

When our hearts break open, they can accept more humanity, more life, more wisdom. We see the world differently.

In my ad, I invite parents whose hearts are breaking to “learn what to expect, how to survive, and how to spread your wings.” Every person and every family experiences empty nesting in their own unique way.

I am passionate about supporting others who are moving through empty nesting and other tough transitions. I had the benefit of feeling warmth and support from Dr. Daniels and I hope to give that to others. I know how important it was for me to be seen as I learned and adapted. It’s been a long road and I love what I’ve discovered: more compassion, more growth and a new way of relating to my adult daughters, my husband, and myself.
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