By Dr. Diane Lass
Many of my friends, clients and family members have had concerns about or are suffering from feelings around empty nests. Children grow up, go onto college or one way or another move out of the home to pursue their lives. Most people I know are happy for their children, but some also suffer from a sense of loss. Their lives have revolved around schedules and deadlines and as much as the home may have felt overwhelming and chaotic at times, the children provide many parents with a sense of purpose.
I have 3 sons who are all grown, married and each have 2 children of their own. I remember the busy schedules. The laughter, the tears, the frustrations, homework left undone, and a ton of swim meets. One by one, my children moved out of our home. Sure, I missed them, but they have all remained in the San Diego area where I live. As much as I missed them, it was a fun time for my husband and myself. We were best friends and it freed up time from the children to explore, travel and enjoy each other’s company.
Almost 8 years ago, my husband, my best friend and lover suddenly died from a massive heart attack and my life as I knew it stopped. Our whole family’s lives stopped, as Steve was such an important and positive part of our lives. When Steve had his heart attack, two of my children performed CPR on him, but he was gone. There is no way for my children to relate to how I was feeling when I instantly lost my husband any more than I could relate to how they must have felt trying to save a man who they truly loved and the love of their mother’s life.
I am so incredibly fortunate to have my whole family. I love them with all of my heart. I am so proud of each one of them. They are incredible husbands and fathers. I love watching the 3 of them together, they are so funny, I love hearing their laughter and I love hearing all the childhood stories..even the ones I would prefer not to hear?
After Steve died, my kids stayed present with me for quite a while, but then they got busier with their lives and families and I was very busy with work and trying to create a new normal for myself.
As much as I admire my children and their lives, I have to admit there became an underlying sense of envy. They were living the life I used to have. I no longer had a husband, I didn’t have consistent love in my house anymore. I struggled with conflicting emotions. On one hand, I was so very proud and happy for them all, but on the other hand, I felt left out. I knew at any time I could go visit any one of my children and their families and they would receive me with open arms and would be happy to spend time with me. But, why didn’t they come see me more? They couldn’t understand why I didn’t just go see them more. After all, there was only one of me and they would have to pack up the whole family to come to see me. I got that, but I thought, whatever happened to going to Gramma’s house? In a strange way it felt like a ridiculous power play.
Not too long ago, one of my daughter-in-laws said she was going to be in my area with my grandkids and asked if I would like to have dinner with them. Not only did she approach me, she also waited at my house with the kids for a couple hours for me to get home from work, which meant the world to me.
When I got home, the lights were on at my normally dark home. I opened the door and yelled, “who’s in my house?” Two adorable grandchildren of mine, ages 2 and 4, came running yelling, “Gramma, Gramma.” Do I even need to say that my heart swelled and melted? If I died in that moment, I would have died an incredibly happy woman full of love. I was so incredibly thankful that my daughter-in-law took her time to bring the kids to see me, it felt like such a huge act of generosity – and it was.
We went to dinner and we had a wonderful time and I came home feeling blessed. I remember sitting in my living room and thinking, love is what is missing in this house. I am missing noise. Although, don’t get me wrong, I love quiet as well. I miss those crazy days. I look at my children and how stressed and overwhelmed they are at times. I get it. I said to my daughter-in-law, I think you guys should move in with me. Half kidding. But, through that comment, I realized I was suffering from a delayed empty nest. When my children moved out of our home, I was happy, I was fulfilled and had a life full of love. After Steve died, so did that part of my life.
Part of me (only part) feels bad that I was a bit of a brat – not understanding why they didn’t make more of an effort, after all – look at all those years I invested in them! Maybe it is just one of those life transitions. I had to settle into my own life, so I could appreciate my life and theirs from a far. Do I feel that Steve and I had a life that was cut way too short? Yes. But, my children’s lives were changed forever as well. Most of my grandkids never met their Grandpa and that is incredibly sad.
I was thinking about my own Grandparents. They lived in Nebraska. They came to visit about once a year. I thought, if I lived in another State, I could come to visit my children and grandkids! Then I decided that I need to set up my own research project. Schedule a 3 day visit at each one of my children’s homes. I wouldn’t want them to change their schedules or routines. I just want to witness their lives. No rules. I would imagine I would be more sympathetic to their busy lives and no doubt I would leave with my heart full of love.
Are you dealing with feelings around an empty nest? Are they positive or negative? Happy or sad? When it comes down to it, it really is about life transitions, right? When life as we know it changes, there are always adjustments, but with time, we do adjust. We can’t go onto the next chapter of our lives if we keep re-reading the last chapter. No matter what changes may be occurring in your lives, how can you re-examine and appreciate the experiences of the past and incorporate them in a different way into your future? The doors to our futures are open.. let’s walk through and make some new happy memories. Live different passions and dreams!
While I am writing the next chapter of my life, it looks like part of it will be incorporating my children and their families in new and healthy ways. We are truly blessed. Who knows where the freedom of my empty nest will take me! Where is it going to take you? What are your dreams? What does your next chapter look like? Time for new fun!
So, watch out kids! Who knows what Gramma is going to be up to, but for now, be ready, Gramma is coming to town!