Don’t judge empty nesters who feel sad!

sorrow and joy

The word ‘whine’ immediately evokes images of a child complaining in an annoying way.  Nobody wants to listen to people who whine and complain about their circumstances, no matter how dire. However, I recently came across a blog with the title ‘Stop whining about your empty nest’ in the Huffington Post. I had to write about my reaction to this post because I felt that many empty nesters feeling sad about their children leaving could feel judged.

Ronna Benjamin says “I’m tired of women (because it is hardly ever men, I’ve noticed) whining about their Empty Nest “Syndrome” like it’s a degenerative disease – a time to mourn, fester in loneliness and abandonment.” She tells parents to lighten up, and not make such a big deal of it. If she had just left out some of the judgmental comments, I would have enjoyed the rest of the post because she brings out some very good reasons to rejoice when your children leave the nest.

You can definitely rejoice about the fact that they are independent enough to leave. You can rejoice that technological advancements have made it easier than ever to communicate with them. You certainly will have much more time on your hands to follow your own interests and spend more time with your partner.  I believe you must rejoice but I also believe in allowing yourself time to grieve and process the changes taking place in your life.

For those who are struggling to come to terms with this phase in their lives, words Ronna Benjamin uses like ‘wallowing’ and ‘fester’ take away from the genuine grieving that does take place at this time.  Everyone reacts differently and those who battle and take a little longer have the right to do so – they should not be judged. Very few parents can just brush away the fact that a certain intense phase of parenting has come to an end. And it’s not just women who experience these emotions either! Some fathers, especially those who have been very involved with their children, have expressed how difficult they find it when they leave home.

Of course we have to let go and move on. It’s just not as easy as flipping a switch or turning a page. Our attitude is important – I am not denying that.  But I think that many of us find that this phase is a little harder than we expected it to be. It’s a time of transition and any transition brings with it mixed emotions. It is possible to experience pain and rejoice at the same time. I love it that my children are living their own lives and I do rejoice in that. But that doesn’t mean that I don’t feel the pain of not having them around on a daily basis.

I know this phase will pass and there are certainly ways to make the transition easier. However, an empty nest does leave some empty holes. These holes will be filled and you may find yourself moving on into one of the best periods of your life. But filling those holes does not happen instantly and I don’t believe that denying they exist is helpful.

Why is it we think we have to be upbeat all the time?  Is it because there are so many self-help books devoted to positivity around today? Don’t get me wrong – I love reading those books. But I also believe we need to succumb to the rhythm of life instead of fighting against it. There will be many occasions to rejoice but there will always be times when we feel sad too. Winter, spring, summer, autumn – the seasons in nature are reflected in our lives.

“We enjoy warmth because we have been cold. We appreciate light because we have been in darkness. By the same token, we can experience joy because we have known sadness. – David Weatherford.

The last thing we need is to feel bad about the fact that we are sad. The sadness does not last forever.  There is a  Chinese proverb that says “You cannot prevent the birds of sadness from passing over your head, but you can prevent their making a nest in your hair.” Don’t feel judged if you feel sad – it is only when it persists for a long period and prevents you from moving on that you may need to get some help.

Kahlil Gibran, in his poem On Joy and Sorrow,  expresses more perfectly than I ever could the nature of the relationship between joy and sorrow. Here is an extract from the poem, describing how inseparable they are:

On Joy and Sorrow

 Kahlil Gibran
Your joy is your sorrow unmasked.
And the selfsame well from which your laughter rises was oftentimes filled with your tears.
And how else can it be?
The deeper that sorrow carves into your being, the more joy you can contain.
Is not the cup that holds your wine the very cup that was burned in the potter’s oven?
And is not the lute that soothes your spirit, the very wood that was hollowed with knives?
When you are joyous, look deep into your heart and you shall find it is only that which has given you sorrow that is giving you joy.
When you are sorrowful look again in your heart, and you shall see that in truth you are weeping for that which has been your delight.

Take heart – if you are experiencing a time of sorrow, it will pass and you will be able to contain more joy as a result of it. Don’t feel judged and don’t judge yourself. What you are experiencing has been experienced by parents throughout the world and in many different times, cultures and places. It is a perfectly natural stage for parents to experience when they have accomplished a certain part of their job as parents. You will move on to the next phase and learn to rejoice again but don’t be ashamed if you’re not quite there yet. You have the right to take however long you feel you need, without being made to feel that you are ‘wallowing’ in your empty nest. Giving voice to your experience is different from ‘whining’ and you have a right to do that too. In fact, it will help you to come to terms with it and move on.

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