Dr. Mike,

My husband and I recently dropped off our last child (our son) at college.  Initially, I shed a few tears but was more focused on my happiness for him.  Well, fast forward two weeks, and I’m miserable. Sad, anxious, empty, and even angry at times. I’m also feeling very guilty about being a working mom, and now regret that I didn’t spend more time with all of our children when they were growing up.  My husband keeps telling me that I’m a “great mom” but I don’t want to hear it, and I’m even fighting about the smallest things with him and just want to be left alone. Our oldest child (son) lives and works on the West Coast and we see him infrequently, and our middle child (daughter) is a sophomore in college and is also away at school already.  Feeling very alone and at a loss for what to do to feel good again.  Help! – Unhappy in Loudoun

Dear Unhappy in Loudoun,

First of all, congratulations!  Our main job as parents is to raise our children to be healthy, happy and ready for life.  It seems you’ve successfully launched three children, and while you don’t feel great about that now, I’m confident you will over time.  Please know that the Empty Nest Syndrome isn’t a clinical diagnosis, but it’s real.  And the grief and associated feelings you’re experiencing in response to your last child leaving the home is completely normal.  At the end of the day, loss is loss, so whether we’re talking about an actual death or a significant event where accepting change is difficult, you’re going to grieve, and there’s no getting around it.  As the old saying goes, “Time heals all wounds,” and in the meantime, here are a few tips to consider to help ease your pain.

  • Stay connected to your children. Technology is a beautiful thing for your moment, so call, text and email them often (without going overboard) to increase communication and to maintain a connection.
  • Talk openly about your feelings with your family and friends since repressing them will likely only lead to feeling worse. If your grief becomes too much for you to manage, I recommend seeking the help of a psychologist with experience and training in grief therapy.
  • Throw yourself into yourself. Without your children at home as your primary focus, you now have plenty of time to give to yourself.  Is there a hobby, project or activity you’d like to take on?  Do you want to exercise more and/or lose weight? Begin to think about what you want to do for you, and do it.
  • Throw yourself into your marriage. While you may not be feeling close with your husband right now because of what you’re going through, this is a great time to rekindle and/or redefine your marriage.  You have plenty of time now to improve the quality of time spent to together with your husband, so start thinking about what you want that to look like.
  • Get involved in your community. Coaching a sport or tutoring or volunteering (with or without your husband) in other ways could provide you with a renewed sense of purpose and joy.
  • Visit your children. Perhaps you could plan a trip out West to visit your oldest son in the near future.  In addition to seeing him and to have a nice time together, maybe you and your husband could take vacation time for yourselves as a couple before or after you spend time with your son.  And while your other two children are in college, that doesn’t mean you can’t visit them too, even if it’s for a shorter visit.

Time, alongside the above mentioned tips, should help your empty nest feel a little more comfortable to dwell in; and remember, our children always need us regardless of their ages, so focus on the good and enjoy watching them fly.

Lastly, I would like to share with you a very moving excerpt from Judith Viorst’s book, Necessary Losses that is timely for your moment:

When we think of loss we think of the loss, through death, of people we love. But loss is a far more encompassing theme in our life. For we lose not only through death, but also by leaving and being left, by changing and letting go and moving on. And our losses include not only our separations and departures from those we love, but our conscious and unconscious losses of romantic dreams, impossible expectations, illusions of freedom and power, illusions of safely – and the loss of our own younger self, the self that thought it would always be unwrinkled, invulnerable and immortal.

Somewhat wrinkled, highly vulnerable and non-negotiably mortal, I have been examining these losses. These lifelong losses. These necessary losses. These losses we confront when we are confronted by the inescapable fact …

That our mother is going to leave us, and we will leave her;

That our mother’s love can never be ours alone;

That what hurts us cannot always be kissed and made better;

That we are essentially out here on our own;

That we will have to accept-in other people and ourselves, the mingling of love with hate, of the good with the bad;

That our options are constricted by anatomy and guilt;

That there are flaws in every human connection;

That our status on this planet is implacably impermanent;

And that we are utterly powerless to offer ourselves or those we love protection – protection from danger and pain, from the inroads of time, from coming of age, from coming of death;

Protection from our necessary losses.

These are a part of life-universal, unavailable, inexorable. And these losses are necessary because we grow by losing and leaving and letting go.

For the road to human development is paved with renunciation. Throughout our life we grow by giving up. We give up some of our deepest attachments to others. We give up certain cherished parts of ourselves. We must conform, in the dreams we dream, as well as in our intimate relationships, all that we never will have and never will be. Passionate investment leaves us vulnerable to loss. And sometimes, no matter how clever we are, we must lose.

Michael Oberschneider, Psy.D. “Dr. Mike” is a clinical psychologist in private practice. He has been featured on CNN, Good Morning America and several other outlets. He can be reached at 703 723-2999, and is located at 44095 Pipeline Plaza, Suite 240, Ashburn.