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Hallowed Time: Thoughts on the Empty Nest

Cartoon is by Adam Zyglis of The Buffalo News

It’s funny how painful, even predictable, life events can be. In some way, I’ve always dreaded the moment when the last of my birds fly the nest- even back when we enthusiastically cheered their first wiggly steps. Those early steps signified the ever-reaching human desire for growth, freedom, and autonomy.

It never ceases to amaze me how we can hold so many emotions all at once. For me, the empty nest floods the body with feelings of excitement for my son as much as sadness for me, and even anticipatory dread of the quiet hallways and low dinner conversations. It presents such a contrast to living in a house full of boys who seem to be drawn to adventure like moths to fire.

The Oxford dictionary defines transition as the process or a period of changing from one state or condition to another. That period can be quite turbulent. And that’s okay. Change = Loss = Grief.

For me, this turbulence has made me think deeply.

How does a marriage reclaim the fiery essence of a life long ago that was filled with selfish cravings and starry-eyed dinner dates? My friend, a couple’s therapist, once told me that having children will drown even the most passionate romance. Twenty-three years later, we go back to search for a flame that provides light for a darkened room once filled with desire. It’s again just you and me, honey. Do you remember when we started writing the story of our family? How will this story continue? Are you excited, nervous?

At the heart of the empty nest is the reshaping of a part of one’s identity. A shift in roles and relationships. This restructuring process can be painfully disorienting as identity runs deep. We humans like familiarity. Children have the singular ability to grab, even demand, everyone’s full and undivided attention. When they leave, we are gifted or perhaps cursed with hollow time.

I’ve been advised to invest this newfound time in novel pursuits. Hold on, I say, my bereft self knows that first I have to fully feel the sadness, the longing for the way we were. Suffering is created from the emotions that follow one’s wish for things to be different than they are. Grief is a visceral, powerful sense that makes me feel human in the most vulnerable way with the promise to clean me out for something new.

Another shadow cast by the empty nest is the stark awareness that aging and consequently death is no longer fantasy but an unwelcomed truth. Midlife is a stage in life that’s neither young nor old but surely leaning towards the finish line. If truth be told, aren’t we all terrified of aging? Yet with children in the house, there is the illusion of youth or perhaps a constant distraction from facing one’s impermanence.

If we fully allow all the emotions of this life transition to be present, it’s no wonder that the empty nest can be harrowing.

Perhaps this time is yet another way of life to teach us the importance of letting go. It’s all about letting go, isn’t it? Change, aging, transitions– all about letting go.

Just to be unprofessional for a second: letting go totally sucks, I entirely hate goodbyes. Can I have my temper tantrum now?

Deep breath … composing myself … and now for my lessons learned:

· Empty-nest-pain means I loved well

· Feeling blue is okay, tears are okay

· My spouse is waiting for me

· Change = Loss = Grief

· Identity restructuring is freaking hard yet doable

· Adults can have temper tantrums too

· The greatest gift is attention

· Feel to deal to heal

The final lesson for me was a surprising one. It can be summed up in Woodrow Wilson’s words: “Friendship is the only cement that will ever hold the world together.” I had no idea what a significant role my friends would play during this phase of my life. They truly provided the cement that held my world together. So, the final learning is to Invest in friendships so love can buffer the pain.

Dedicated to: Petra Schreiber, Carol Schreiber, Stella Wu, Renee Van der Stelt, Shannon Wilson, Zoe Jack, Kerri Soltysik, Cathy Buccheri, Jenn Sibila, Anne Zimmerman, Bev Gorman, Vivian Morgan, Jessica Seiter, Anna Seiter, Amber Millerchip, Anne Contee, Hailie Brumfield, Sunita Govind, Kasia Pfund, Katja Engel-Hughes, Jenny Gulino, and my best friend Morrison Pan.

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