Empty Nest Pt. 1: My Very Cool Roommate Is Moving Out…

motarboard toss

Mortarboards have been thrown, transcripts sent, dorm walls measured, orientation trips planned. All set. All good to go. Congrats on the success, good luck on the next chapter and, wo-hoo, we just couldn’t be prouder. It’s time to let go and launch the child and all I know is…my very cool roommate is moving out and I’m going to miss him.

There are various Rites of Passage we go through in life: Teething, Puberty, Anxious 30’s, Mid-Life (Crisis or Otherwise), Menopause (male & female), Damn 50’s, Really Old and, finally, Facing Death. They all have capital letters. And each comes with an unwrittenprincipal's award guide that gets us through the shoals with instruction and reassurance that whatever we’re thinking/feeling/experiencing is simply part of the phase, hang on, we’re all going through it, nothing to be afraid of.

For example, no matter what’s going on with a child during the pre-mastication era, no matter what symptoms or behaviors, no worries, it’s “Just Teething.” Fevering madly? Teething. Screaming for dear life? Teething. Eating dirt with enthusiasm? Teething. And Puberty? Every whine-fest, meltdown, door-slam, anxiety-attack, hair-flinging stomp out of the kitchen is ascribed to the unavoidable transition from childhood to hormones.  God forbid a real crisis is in bloom, we’re convinced it’s “Just Puberty.” A few decades later we follow with another version of the same…except with the added burden of being closer to Facing Death. That would be Menopause with all its sweaty, mood-swinging confusion.  Of course, there are also the phases of Marriage and Parenthood. Not everyone will go through these but most will and most who experience Parenthood will ultimately face the classic Rite of Passage known as Empty Nest Syndrome, ENS. Let’s pull that one out of the pack.

JgradIt’s a worthy topic this time of year when yet another fresh batch of graduating 18-year-olds and their beleaguered parents are faced with this unavoidable and monumental transition. It might be instructional to break it down. Because here’s the truth: like all other phases of life, all other Rites of Passage – whether teething, teening, or reluctantly senioring – None Of It Is the Same for All Of Us. No advice, no analysis, no remedy applies unanimously. We’re All Going Through Our Own Version. Of Everything. You may be gleefully booking your cruise for September or planning that first post-child remodel on the house, but I’m not. I’m dealing with the fact that I had a very cool roommate for 18 years and now he’s moving out.  And I’m going to miss him.

This may seem like a weird analogy, perhaps an overly morbid one, but there’s something here akin to How We Deal With Death. It’s no secret that everyone grieves differently and pretty much everyone struggles with how to talk to grieving folk. When my father died, I was struck by how off-putting I too often found the well-meaning person who’d ask how old he was (72) only to respond, “Well, at least he lived a nice long life.” My thought:  not really. 72 seems a tad young to me. And whatever, I don’t care if he was 97, he was still my father and he’s still dead and I’m still sad. Or when they’d hear he died in his sleep and would say, “Well, at least he died peacefully,” and I’d want to holler, “So what?? He died and I’m really sad and that comment doesn’t make me feel any better!” I learned by subjective experience that the only safe thing to say to a person suffering a loss is: “I’m so sorry to hear about your loss.” If you know the deceased, say something personal and authentic like: “Your Dad was a really great guy…I liked him a lot.” That sort of thing is always appreciated…too many people are afraid to actually talk about the person who died and the grieving party likes nothing better. But the point is, don’t say anything that smacks of generic, patronizing Guidebook Speak; it doesn’t help.

What, you may be thinking, does any of this have to do with Empty Nest Syndrome? A lot, actually. Because ENS is, quite simply, about loss. And like Death and all these other Rites of Passage, it’s completely and utterly unique for each person and requires a certain wisdom in response. May I suggest a few very subjective pointers?

1.  Don’t tell me “It’s his time to fly…you just have to let him go.” I already know that. Don’t insult my intelligence orLighthouse with Dillon imply inordinate neediness on my part by making the point. No one wants him to fly more than I do. Nor is anyone more aware that it’s time to let go. Just say, “Oh, honey, I understand…you’re going to miss him…it’ll get better.” That’s all that’s needed.

2.  Refrain from: “You’ll need to find some new things to focus on, to keep yourself busy and distracted after he leaves.” No, I don’t. I have plenty to do. I was busy and distracted while he was here and I’ve still got all my projects, work, husband, friends, hobbies, household tasks, creative endeavors, etc. He was hardly ever around anyway so it’s not about filling time. It’s just that I’m going to miss him. Ask me how he’s doing in college and come with me to a movie.

dill with headphones 001sm3. Try to avoid: “You’ll be surprised how nice it’ll be when you don’t have to do his laundry or look at his messy room anymore.” That’ll be surprising? I’ve been looking forward to that for years. But frankly, regardless of dirty clothes or the bomb site that is his room, I’ve always loved knowing he was down the hall, ready to wake up and make me laugh, help me with my website or talk to me about his girlfriend. If you know me, you’ll understand why I might be found napping on the well-made bed in his empty room every once in a while. Don’t call the shrink…it’s my own form of therapy.

4.  Don’t bother with: “But he’ll come home for breaks and summers, right?” We all know that once the family system embraces the Initial Departure, it’s never quite the same as Before They Left. We can’t pretend. We’ve all got to adjust, you can just say it.

5. And PLEASE, do not send articles from Psychology Today that analyze ENS and suggest therapy or herbs or calming pharmaceuticals. I’m not having a breakdown; my kid is just leaving home.

Rachell's cardParenthood is one of the few relationships that comes with planned obsolescence. We go into it fully knowing we’ve got to leap now and let go later. There’s no other such deal in life: we get married and the plan is till death do us part. It doesn’t always work out but that’s the idea…we aren’t typically required to give it up at a preordained time. Same with friends; we make a great friend and there is absolutely no reason to believe we can’t keep them through the dotage years. A loving pet is under our feet and in our beds until the very end.

But a child? We get them only for a while. We know that this one relationship, this special, amazing, unique and glorious relationship, is going to change and develop and transform every minute of every day and in about 18 years time, will naturally evolve away from us in a way that is inevitable and irreversible. It’s the Circle of Life, the Coming of Age, the Passing of the Mantle. It’s perfect and painful at the same time.

But know this: Most of us suffering from ENS need no advice. No drugs, no therapy, no words of wisdom. We know what is happening and we know it must happen. We’re proud of our children, proud of ourselves for our part in their success. We’re excited for the new adventures they’ll embrace and vicariously thrilled by their flight. We’re ready to welcome them back for the moments they’ll briefly return but have no delusion about keeping them forever in their cozy childhood rooms. We’re the ones gently, lovingly, pushing them out the door to their inevitable independence. We’re good parents and we know what we’re supposed to do.

Cambria shore 2006 007

But still…I had a very cool roommate for 18 years and now he’s moving out. And I’m really going to miss him.

To read the rest of the series (so far!):

• Empty Nest Pt 2: Empty ‘Next’ Syndrome…Coming Home
• Empty Nest Pt. 3: See You In November!
 Empty Nest Pt. 4: He’s Leaving Home AGAIN… Bye Bye
 Empty Nest Pt. 5: It’s a Wrap… Well, Almost

All photographs courtesy of Lorraine Devon Wilke 

LDW w glasses


Visit www.lorrainedevonwilke.com for details and links to LDW’s books, music, photography, and articles.

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135 thoughts on “Empty Nest Pt. 1: My Very Cool Roommate Is Moving Out…

  1. yay google is my queen helped me to find this outstanding site! read several of the articles but thought i’d post on this one here…great stuff.

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  2. Just want to say your blog is almost amazing. I always like to read something new about this because I have the similar blog in my Country on this subject so this helps me a lot. I did a search on the topic of kids leaving home and found a good number of blogs but nothing like this.Thanks for sharing so much in your blog.. Greets, Lucija

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  3. I’d just like to let you know how much I learn from your writings. Not only the content – this one got to me since my kid is in college – but the style. Dugg you. Hope to be back in the near future for some more good stuff

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  4. Pingback: Empty Next Syndrome…Coming Home | Rock+Paper+Music

  5. Kim

    You put in to words my feelings, as all this is coming upon me, too. In the next year, my perfect roommate, will be leaving me. You find the precise way to say what is happening. Thank you; it helps.

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    1. LDW

      Kim…thank you for your comment; I really appreciate it.

      It’s a real journey, isn’t it? Looking ahead to letting go. I have to say, the night before we left him at his dorm was one of the hardest of my life; I felt like I was making some kind of colossal blunder that would be irrevocable. But we survived, he survived, he flourished, actually, and he’s home this summer being exactly the boy I remember. It does get easier, this I promise you. It never ceases to be a huge, monolithic turning point in your life, your family’s life, but it does get easier. And it just evolves into a different kind of relationship. It’s the letting go that’s the hardest part.

      Hang in there…I’m glad if anything I had to say helped.

      LDW

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  6. Marlen

    Wow thought I was weird to feel this way. Thank you so much for your words, your heartfelt feelings. My daughter almost moved out and due to circumstances she did not go away and she stayed and I have to admit I was so happy. She is now going to school locally and I feel I was given a second chance, more time to enjoy her company. But I know it will eventually happen she will move out and I do not look forward to that time. My daughter is a special type of person that despite the fact I love her her life style clashes with ever fiber in my body so this time that she is still home and not expressing her self is my time to pretend everything is still my normal only time will tell what will happen when she leaves . Once again thank you for making me feel normal.

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    1. LDW

      Marlen: Thanks for your thoughtful and very heartfelt comment. I think this process of “letting go” of your child is one of the hardest in the world; certainly for me and for many. It’s one of those inevitable milestones that we know is coming, we expect, we even look forward to in some ways but, for me, when I got right up to it, it knocked the air out of my lungs. Somehow it was easier to picture it somewhere up in the distance then stand at the parking lot of the dorm watching him walk off into his new life while you feel like someone just ripped your heart out! I’ve heard from enough to know that not everyone goes through that dramatic a transition, for I have had such a close, fun and bonded relationship with my son that it was a life-changer for me…still is. So I understand, with great compassion, what you’re going through.

      Enjoy your second chance (because it, too, will eventually end!) and make the most of every moment. It sounds like such a cliche, but it’s the absolute truth. Each moment is what we have and it’s important not to waste any being concerned with how many moments are left! We’re all “normal”…this is just the life of being a loving parent!

      Thanks and best to you. LDW

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  7. Patricia

    Wow. I am having a tough time typing this, as the tears are flowing. Again. My son left in August for college. He is the most amazing child/son/person and we have shared an incredible journey together. We were/are very close. I cannot talk to very many people about the way I am feeling. First of all, I cry every time. Second of all, most people do not understand, or if they do at all because they have been through it, they pretend like they don’t, or they forget, and say stupid things. It’s a very strange place to be. I liken it losing someone through death, and the feeling one gets when everyone goes home, back to their routines, and one is left alone to grieve. But at the same time…no one ever really came at all. I know it will get easier on some level, but on another, it won’t. Thank you again. Thank you, thank you, thank you 🙂

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    1. LDW

      Aw…Patricia…I SO know what you’re going through. Just as my words resonated with you, yours do with me. It was, seriously, one of the most painful experiences of my life, leaving him at school last August. Like you, it felt like a death and even my husband, his father, didn’t quite get the depth of what I was feeling. There’s something so wrenching about it, like a part of your heart is being ripped out. After 18 years of having this person be the absolute most focused part of your life, suddenly you’re asked – almost blithely – to let go. Just let go, as if that’s not a big deal. It is a BIG deal. My heart is truly with you and, hopefully without sounding trite, I feel your pain.

      Let me tell you this: my son is now in his second year and it HAS gotten easier. I wrote a follow-up piece to the story you just read called https://rockpapermusic.com/empty-next-syndrome-coming-home/, looking ahead, last May, to what the first summer home would be like. I plan to write a follow-up to that as well…several people wrote and asked: “Well, how did that first summer go?” so it bears an answer.

      You do adapt. Especially after they come home for that first summer and you realize they’re still the same amazing child/son/person and you find a new way to connect and be attached in this new incarnation of your experience together. It WILL happen for you, I promise. For me those first several, very painful, months were helped by keeping very focused on my work. It was distraction, but necessary distraction. And over time…yes, it did get easier.

      Thank you for writing. If you subscribe to the email service on the site, you’ll get notices when new posts are published. Otherwise, just keep an eye out. Hang in there, Patricia! LDW

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      1. Patricia

        Thank you for your reply, Lorraine. Once again, your words are spot on 🙂 I will definitely look at the follow-up piece and let you know what I think. My son just visited for the weekend. I am so grateful for the hugs and laughs and hugs and smiles…..and hugs 🙂

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  8. Connie S.

    This really got to me. Sent my last kid off to college a week ago and I think I’m still crying. Thanks for sharing your own experience. You pretty much hit it on the head (I read your other ones too!).

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    1. Thanks, Connie. Don’t I know! You’d think after doing this as many times as I have it’d be a breeze. It’s easier, surely, but that lump always shows up! Good luck to you! LDW

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  9. I know it will get painful but it has to pass. Because no matter how good of a parent we are to our children they will and they have to in the future leave us to live the life we taught them and show the world how great we have made them who they are. They are very dear to us but the grieving is inevitable for this things are product of our. The love and guidance of all the years we have invest on them will show and in time when it is right they will make us proud. I feel what you feel Patricia and I tell you it will be okay.

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    1. Thank you, Edward, for that thoughtful comment and your empathy. I’m sure Patricia appreciates it as well. It’s all part of a cycle and we ultimately get where we’re going as parents of adult children. But what a wild ride getting there! LDW

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