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Empty nest syndrome – one year on

The Guardian released an article last week about empty nest syndrome, quoting the following headlines:

“Terrible emptiness: parents struggle with children leaving home”

“Survey of parents of first-year students found 98% felt extreme grief after the closeness of lockdown.”

A survey carried out by Unite Students of 1,000 parents of  university students found that empty nest syndrome hit parents particularly hard this year. 93% of those surveyed believed that being closer to their children throughout the pandemic made them leaving home more difficult.

Revisiting my empty nest syndrome blog

These stories prompted me to revisit my own blog written twelve months ago about my son going away to university ‘Empty Nest Syndrome,’ and to reflect on the past year. Hopefully sharing my own experiences might just help others who are struggling to not feel quite so alone.

In all honesty, the last twelve months have been an emotional roller coaster fraught with challenges for both my son and myself – but also with periods of immense pride.

My son is one of the lucky ones, as due to the course he is studying he has received 80% of his tuition face-to-face. But this meant he was expected to attend university in person, which in turn meant regardless of rising covid cases he had to live away from home.

Initially in early September last year, some restrictions had been lifted and we believed he would be able to come home from university for the odd weekend or I would be able to go visit. As the pandemic quickly progressed this was no longer possible.

The impact of Covid-19

Within two weeks of arriving in London he was notified to isolate due to an outbreak of Covid-19. Thankfully my son had not contracted covid but isolation meant being restricted to a small bedroom, only allowed out once a day to cook a meal in the kitchen, the first of many isolations. Four days into isolation he received an eviction notice as his accommodation had been assessed by a fire crew as unsafe. This was a logistical nightmare and as due to covid I couldn’t be there to support him. I felt useless as a parent and very anxious about whether he would cope.

Having managed to organise alternative accommodation, my son was then diagnosed with a serious lifelong suppressed immune disorder. Definitely not the news we needed in the middle of Covid-19. Eventually after several hospital appointments, my son was admitted for two lots of emergency surgery. I was unable to accompany my son as covid restrictions around hospitals and travel were still incredibly strict. For the previous nineteen years I was always the person who sorted out my sons problems.

I again felt helpless and guilt that I wasn’t able to be there to support him.

Returning to the nest

I think the worst point of the year was having already struggled through all the winter lockdowns and various challenges, I received a phone call from my son the day before he was due home for the summer, to say there had been another outbreak of covid and he wouldn’t be able to come home for a further two weeks. I fell apart completely, and spent most of that weekend just sobbing. After everything that had happened throughout the year it just felt totally overwhelming and that I couldn’t cope anymore.

Despite these challenges I am proud to say my son coped very well. He received some glowing reports from his tutors and passed his first year with flying colours. We spent a great summer together, mostly working but we managed to get a couple of short breaks away, which we both thoroughly enjoyed.

How has this affected me?

Coping with my son going away, the challenges faced, and the normal grief a parent feels when their child leaves home has taken its toll on my own mental health.

Add to this living alone through covid lockdowns, working from home and fears for my own health have led to me at times being mentally unwell.

I have also found myself feeling lonely as most of my social networks were previously based around my sons’ activities, a social group I no longer feel connected to. And with government restrictions on our lives, it has also been difficult to spend time with other people. This has led to me experiencing feelings of stress, helplessness, fear, overwhelming anxiety, bouts of insomnia and some very dark moments of depression.

The hardest part is that as a parent I have always been the strong supporting role in my son’s life, but now I feel vulnerable and useless – which has caused immense feelings of shame and guilt. I feel like a bad parent for not being able to cope with letting go.

I had hoped that this year with most covid restrictions lifted and being able to travel more freely, that my son returning to university would feel easier. But to be honest I am still struggling.

What have I learned in the last twelve months?

  • First and foremost, it is ok to feel sadness and loss when your children leave the nest. This is a normal process. But if you are suffering these feelings for more than a few weeks, it is important to reach out for help. I have had a couple of people throughout the past year who have been incredibly supportive, and to them I am extremely grateful. I have also had professional counselling. Although it didn’t necessarily solve my issues, it helped to gain some perspective and to face difficult emotions.
  • If you are friends with a parent who is experiencing their child going away to university do check-in on them. They are likely to be too proud or ashamed to ask for help. A friendly listening ear can make all the difference to their mental wellbeing.
  • Tens of thousands of parents experience their children going away to university every year. But no two parents will experience it the same. Your experience will depend on many factors and is personal to you, so don’t try to compare yourself to others.
  • Children often surprise you and cope with adulthood a lot better than expected.
  • Make the most of the time you are able to spend with your children. Phone calls, video calls, planning time together during the holidays can all help.
  • It is important to fill your days. I have focused on work, walking and photography – these have helped to distract myself from my thoughts.
  • If you are struggling you are not alone. There are many support services which can help you. Talk to your GP, the Community Mental Health Team or The Samaritans. Dorset Mind also has a large range of support services available. Find links to these support options here.

And finally be kind to yourself, yes it feels hard right now but in time it will get easier. Before you know it you will be a proud parent attending your son or daughter’s graduation.

Getting support:

If you need help with any of the issues featured here, we offer a range of 1-2-1 and group support – which you can find here.

Our training team also run a ‘Grief, Loss and Big Change’ course. It considers the idea that grief isn’t always about losing someone. Losing a former way of life or facing change can bring about similar feelings to the grief cycle. Find out more here.

HUGE thanks to our anonymous blogger for their emotive and eloquent article about empty nest syndrome.

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