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Grief in an Empty Nest

Updated: Jul 14, 2023

I thought I was avoiding this post because I had nothing to say on the subject. But sitting down to my laptop this morning, I realize I've been avoiding it because what I have to say is so painful and scary to admit. This blog is nothing if not real and raw and honest because that is what the experience of grieving a child is like. You can't tiptoe around it or pretend it isn't happening. It is not smooth or nice or easy. It is the epitome of everything we hate about being human—painful and vulnerable and ugly. Mortal. Messy. Chaotic and random and wholly out of our control. And so, I will take a deep breath and dive into my wound one more time so that I can share the beautiful disaster that is my life—my loss, my pain, my truth—with you.

My daughter moved out three months ago. She's twenty-six, so this is totally in keeping with what's expected in our culture. They finish school. They go to college or learn a trade. They leave home and become useful members of society, starting the cycle over again, beginning their own journey in the world. It's not like she was seven and packed a bag of cheese crackers and underwear and told us to get lost. But it feels a little that way. Even though I wanted this for her. Even though I did everything in my power to help her get to this point. Even though I'm cheering her on each and every day.

My son, who is five years younger, moved away to college a couple of years before. Last summer, he told us he was not coming back. He's working in New York between semesters, living on campus, enjoying everything that place has to offer him. As I would want him to. As I have encouraged and advised him to do. As I hoped and dreamed for him.

But standing on the sidelines of their lives, watching from afar rather than being on that field together, as a team, is a sucker punch of its own kind. And with my daughter's move, my husband and I are finally facing life as empty nesters. It is a moment I dreaded with every fiber of my being after Evelyn died. Because losing a child makes empty nest even more loaded than it is for the average parent. Empty nest then isn't just a transition, it becomes a trigger. And a very big one at that.

The two biggest triggers I face with an empty nest are being alone in this house where Evelyn died and dealing with what I've termed my "goodbye trauma". Having Zoey and Ben here felt like having a buffer between myself and the horror of that morning. A horror that still lives in my brain and body, that I feared still lived in that room. The life they brought to this space each and every day, the joy they created just by being alive and being present, the memories we inevitably made together here in the wake of Evelyn's loss... They were like a thick, warm, woolly blanket in a blizzard of pain and doubt. Where would I be when they left? I believed I would be standing in that darkened room again on a hot August morning, calling her name, feeling for signs of life that didn't come. I believed that without them here, that moment would swallow me.

It hasn't. I had the good sense to start EMDR knowing this was coming, knowing I needed to get a handle on my relationship to this house if I were going to keep living in it after they were gone. And if EMDR has done anything, it has healed my connection with this space, the physical location of Evelyn's death. The house will never be the same for me as it was before August 2017, but it's no longer the container of nightmares that I feared I was being left with.

The goodbye trauma is still a work in progress. And it essentially boils down to this—I equate goodbye with loss, with death. If you are leaving, you may as well be dying. Not logically, of course. Logically I understand that people can go away and be perfectly safe and alive. But that's the tricky thing with trauma and PTSD, it's a subconscious download that is difficult to erase once it's in there. So, the day my daughter moved out, everything inside me erupted, a volcano of unchecked grief and longing and fear, a torrent of pain. It was a tangle of flashbacks and tears, and it took effort and time to get back under control. And that is a cycle that gets repeated every time I see them, and every time they leave now. It's challenging and embarrassing and destabilizing. It makes me feel ashamed and out of control and exhausted. I think with time, EMDR can ease this experience for me too, but I don't know if I'll ever be able to say goodbye to my children in a way that isn't at least a little bit charged, that doesn't feel like Evelyn slipping away from me in the night.

In the darkest moments of empty nest, the grief whispers that this is karmic. That my surviving children will always see me as synonymous with their worst loss, their most traumatic experience. That they will want to get as far away from me as possible. That now that they're free, they won't want to return. That somehow their lives are easier, happier without me in them. And that all of this is happening because I lost their sister. A new kind of punishment for me to endure because I failed at the most important job of my life. Those are the moments when the angry, burning thing inside me rears up and lashes out, still looking for someone to blame, someone to torture, which will always, inevitably be me. They aren't thoughts I'm proud of. And I try very hard not to believe them. But they grow from the soil inside me that is seeded with shame, that can't help but wonder if I am to blame for it all, that believes I must be.

It is very hard as a mother who naturally feels responsible for her children's well being, to turn that sense of responsibility off when a child dies.

In some ways, the shape of my grief has stayed constant since the kids moved out. Evelyn is still not here. I still cannot see or touch or hear her. My heart still longs for her, sending out a desperate signal with every beat. It still waits in the silence for an answer. I can't say that experiencing empty nest has caused me to grieve Evelyn more, which I feared it would. But any parent who goes through empty nest goes through grief. Loss is an intrinsic aspect of watching our kids grow up and move on. I just have new losses to grieve now alongside the old. New spaces to lean into. New rooms that are vacant. The difference being, this is familiar territory. I am, at this point, a zen-fucking-master at grief. I know how to do this. So in this strange and unexpected way, it's been less rather than more.

Still, I think mothers have done each other a disservice by not talking about this. Empty nest is a heartbreak. Even when it's good and right and ready. We have lived for the sticky hands and the hastened meals and the after-school practices and the dirty socks. For the bags of unidentifiable goo under the bed and the backpack cleanouts and the drains clogged with hair and sometimes other things. These kids have filled holes inside of us we didn't even know existed. They have given our lives shape and definition and meaning. And it is primal—the love and the food and protectiveness and the vigilance. The Band-Aids and the bedtime stories and the boogeymen. And then it's over. As suddenly as it began. And it leaves an ache behind.

Yes, we are more than mothers. Our careers and our relationships matter. Our hobbies and our passions. The ways we fill ourselves out, sketch ourselves in. But that bond, that connection that is so profound we have happily given our lives over to it, that role that ties us to generations of women before and to the Great Mother herself—originator, source, the archetype that houses all the maternal, creative energy of the universe—that is unlike anything we have ever felt or will feel again. That is singular. That is divine. And it is a hard habit to break.

When Evelyn died, I lived for my surviving children. Not figuratively. Literally. Every day. Every breath. When the pain was so intense I wanted desperately to die, when the suicidal ideation teased, when I didn't think I could go a single second longer... I did. For them. Because I couldn't hurt them more than they'd already endured. Because they needed me. Because their survival was still very much in my hands. In the time since, I have managed to build a life I enjoy living again. To find other things worth living for. But make no mistake, they are the reason for all of it. And they always will be. Every mother, every parent, lives for their children. They just don't realize how much until they lose one.

I am only a few months into this new phase of our life. And by all accounts, I think I'm doing a kick-ass job of coping. But it is, to some degree, coping. I believe that will shift with time. That it will start to feel less like coping and more like living. If I can find beauty and meaning and purpose in the world after Evelyn's death, then I can certainly do so after her siblings have moved out and moved on. I can adjust. I can adapt. I can bend. But it is just that, an adjustment. And a very real one. My world was once peopled by faces I didn't think I could breathe without seeing every day. And now my days are wide and quiet, diffuse at the edges like frayed cotton. The definition has gone. And in its place I am left with a kind of fill-in-the-blank, Mad Lib existence. It can be scary for someone who hasn't yet made peace with the emptiness.

Empty nest is not the worst thing a grieving parent can face because we've already faced the worst thing. But it can blow the lid off a life where the bottom has already dropped out. It can rock an already compromised boat that's been taking on water for years. It's a transition to be navigated with extreme care and tenderness in the face of culture that deplores shows of emotion and vulnerability. And at the same time, it's just another Tuesday. Another day to take out the trash and water the plants and walk your overweight dog. It is a cog in the clockwork of being that marches on, irrespective of our feelings. We are indelibly changed the moment our children come into our lives, and even more so the moment they leave them.

I am grateful for every exhale, every scraped knee, every roll of Evelyn's eyes. For every hug her sister has freely given, and every joke her brother has made at my expense. For every second and every memory, every touch and every word. I carry them all inside me, like jewels, nestled beside my heart. They are the stuff my joy is made of, especially when the days are long and hard and lonely. Being a mother has held both the highest and lowest points of my life, been the source of my greatest elation and deepest agony. It has challenged me, grown me, broken me. And it has comforted me, stayed me, rebuilt me. It has, for me, never been one thing but many. A great messy fingerpainting of love and sorrow that scooped me up on the cusp of my adult life, turned everything on its head for twenty-six breathtaking years, and set me back down again in the lull of middle age. I will, of course, always be a mother. But now more in theory than in practice. It's a change I'm still getting used to.

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I can’t believe how similar our experiences are! It’s as if you are my spirit twin and we are walking the exact same journey. My nightmare began in July of 2018, when my daughter died in her sleep at the age of 21 in the house I still live in. I have 3 adult sons who were my tether to this world. My last one just moved out at 24 and the PTSD that engulfed me was unreal. I’m only 5 weeks into it. You articulated this experience so well. Thank you for this moving piece.

Anna Sweat
Anna Sweat

Wow. I hate that you've had to share in the experience of child loss, but I'm glad my journey and my words can be a comfort to you. It's nice to know I'm not the only one going through the grief + empty nest experience right now. Reach out if you ever need someone to talk to about it. So much love to you and your beautiful daughter.

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