“Lost is just how you may feel as an empty nester,” says psychotherapist Jen Elmquist, MA, LMFT, author of Relationship Reset. “When the last child leaves, you’re in transition. You can’t go back to the way things were, and you haven’t yet gotten to the way things are going to be.”
You may feel relief and grief at once. The daily demands of parenting are gone, yet so are its daily joys. When a child’s needs are no longer shaping the schedule, parents can feel like they’re lacking direction. “You’re not sure what’s going to come next,” Elmquist says.
Ideally, you’d have discussed the imminent change with your partner well before the nest emptied and tested out some new routines — more dates, for instance, or parent-only vacations — to try on your new freedom.
But if you find yourself unprepared, Elmquist suggests simply acknowledging that a transition is under way. “People can hope or believe that they are going to have what they had with the kids, just without the kids being present,” she says. Yet, this is denying reality; things are different now.
To offset that sense of emptiness, Elmquist recommends redefining your mission. “What’s your new purpose, as an individual, as a couple?” She suggests going on a vision quest to reflect, journal, and dream about what you want from your next stage of life.
Above all, try to remember that the grief will pass, as all things do. “You’re in a time of change that will come to an end,” she says. “Beyond it is a new period that’s full of possibilities.”
This originally appeared as “Our youngest child just moved out and I feel lost. How do I adjust?” in the May 2018 print issue of Experience Life.