By Michael Grey
When my son started the college application process and touring, I did not expect much or note much from a change perspective to my own life or his.
We started the tours with the local schools (which we have a number of) and then the more distant ones.
While on a tour on some gloomy spring day, that gut feeling set in. This school was the best place for him to be if he chooses, and this was much further away than I am comfortable with. As the nature of things unrolled, he chose to go to this school, as he realized himself this was where the best education would be, even if far away from home.
The summer went by without much fanfare, but then one day he left and suddenly it was terrible. My identity which I have worked on not attaching to, was shaking apart. The worst part—my wife was feeling it too, and some of our closest friends were all experiencing this profound emotional pain.
I swear I do not remember anyone forewarning me that the process of your kid moving out of the house would be so filled with grief and loss, a groundless and sad feeling. So we are left with this profound change in our lives; daily rituals of a family unit or tribe abruptly ended. We are programmed to think that this is a proud parenting moment, but it feels like shit.
I start to seriously wonder if humans were meant to move out of small tribes. My answer becomes no, but our society is apparently built on this concept of moving out, up and on. I feel like we are part of some larger ruling classes agenda.
Civilization sometimes sucks. I meditate on that.
Our practice tells us to allow the emotions in and let them run through us. We allow and allow. We give space to our spouses who are also going through this change. We begin to remake our identities with one another (it’s like we are dating again but with arthritis), with our child’s new life…all of it. It takes a lot of time, a lot of Netflix, a lot coping and accepting.
You and your spouse will grow from this in your relationship, but only if you’re completely honest with them about where you are at, no matter how fragile it may be.
The young adult will show up every so often, and the emotions on arrival and departure feel fresh again. You will know what it means to physically miss someone. Updates via text are wrought with worry, satisfaction and gratitude for their life events, no matter how big or small.
The children too, will grow and change from all of this. They learn that it is hard to be away from their friends, their significant others, and some of those relationships won’t make it through the first year. We start reliving a bit of our experiences at that age, the relationships that come and go.
The losses from change can overwhelm the experience new people and experiences brought into our lives.
We can ask them to be open, but they are remote adults now, needing to navigate this hardship on their own unless they ask us. We have to learn to remotely love and care for them, as we likely do a large number of our families.
I’ve talked to a number of my coworkers, ex-coworkers and mutual parents of my child’s friends they grew up with, and both fathers and mothers are hit with this change. Gender has nothing to do with it. Most parents I have spoken to authentically about this realize that this is the yang of the child’s birth—the drop. The grief and suffering of change when nobody died.
I would like to think I could offer sage advice on this, but I feel that would jeopardize the value of understanding and experiencing the process. There are many ineffective quotes on empty nests on the internet in my opinion, and don’t do this experience any justice.
Those of us with a good standing practice will be able to emotionally cope a little bit better with it, but not forgo the experience. My deeper wish is just to bring awareness to something that I did not realize would have such an impact. I believe I was programmed to think this would be a joyous and celebrated time. There are some really proud moments that do come after the fact, but mainly on our son’s accomplishments, and the ability for my partner and I to move forward.
It has left a scar of loss in me—a wound that I don’t want to really heal just yet. So I can appreciate fully all the times when we were together as parents and a child, and appreciate any time we get together moving forward more fully and authentically.
Michael Grey is a middle aged husband and father living in New England. He enjoys dystopian science fiction, gardening and sunsets. He as worked over 20 years as a customer service representative. He is an advocate for climate justice and open discussions about mental health.
Editor: Dana Gornall