I Still Do

Overcoming Loneliness When Your Children Leave the Nest

Adjusting to a new reality can be an especially difficult task.

by Barbara Rainey and Susan Yates

Tears streamed down Sarah’s face as she began to describe how she was feeling, “Our last child, Emily, has just left for college and I find myself crying almost every day. For thirty years I’ve poured my life into my kids. Even though I started two of my own companies and was very successful, my kids were always my priority. Now nobody really needs me. I feel like I’ve been fired. I am so lonely.”

Loneliness can catch us unaware. Georgie experienced it in the auto repair shop. As she was standing in line at the checkout counter, a song started playing over the intercom. It was one of her son’s favorites. In fact, his band had played it, and just hearing it brought back memories of all the nights of band practice in their basement.

To the astonishment of the clerk, Georgie burst into tears. Her son had only been gone two months and her heart was still tender. 

Nancy felt the loneliness most at the dinner table. Her husband and daughter used to joke around and mealtimes were full of laughter. Now, conversation between her and her husband seemed forced, even boring. The cloud of loneliness was thick. And it wasn’t much fun to cook anymore.

Julia, a single parent, has raised her kids alone. Her daughter is a senior, and as they look at colleges, Julia wonders what the empty nest will be like for her. 

One thing I’m realizing is that being a single parent has some hidden blessings. I know what it’s like to be alone; I’ve learned to be alone. It doesn’t frighten me. I know I will experience loneliness in a fresh way when Liz leaves, but I am comfortable with being by myself. I’ve had to learn that. Feeling lonely because I miss my child is different from being miserable and being alone. And I’ve learned that if I’m too lonely, it’s my own fault. I need to reach out to someone else. 

At some level, each of us experiences loneliness during our years as a mother. And when our children leave home, the adjusting to the loneliness of the empty nest can be an especially difficult task.

Three adjustments will help ease the pain of loneliness and give us a fresh perspective on what can become a grand adventure:

1. Recognize the “Season Principle”

Over the years both of us have found it helpful to recognize that we go through different seasons in life. There’s the season of being single, of being a newlywed, of raising young children, and of parenting teens. And the empty nest season. And finally there are the golden years at the twilight of life.

Seasons aren’t purely biological; interspersed through life are seasons of loss, seasons of pain, seasons of stress, seasons of joy. It’s helpful to look at life in terms of seasons. Every season will have unique challenges and each season will have unique blessings. We all remember the challenges of the infant years: sleep deprivation and a lack of appreciation. It’s a rare four-year-old who says, “Mommy you are doing such a good job of raising me. Thank you!”

But those years also hold unique blessings. I (Susan) remember when Libby saw the ocean for the first time. As her little eyes grew wide with fright and amazement, she exclaimed, “Mommy, it’s too full. You need to let some of it out!” 

It’s helpful to articulate the challenges and then choose to focus on the blessings of each distinct season. When we define the challenges and discuss them with others, we discover that we are normal! When we are intentional in looking for the blessings, we discover the joys that God has prepared for us. It’s important to remember that no season lasts forever. We want to really live in each unique time, and miss nothing.

So what about the season of the empty nest? We are already discovering some of the common challenges—that’s one of the purposes of this book. But we don’t want to remain stuck in the challenges. Instead, we want to focus on the benefits of this season. Yet, no matter what our current challenge is, the place to begin is with God.

2. Run to God

At different times every one of us will get stuck. We’ll feel blue, we’ll experience loneliness, we’ll be anxious about the future. It isn’t just being in the empty nest, it’s being in transition. Moving from one season to another is uncomfortable and awkward. In fact, as much as we’d like to think stability is the norm in life, actually we spend more time in transition.

Where do we go in a time of transition? The book of Proverbs has a piece of advice for us: “The name of the Lord is a strong tower, the righteous run to it and are safe.”

Our inclination can be to run to our husbands, our mothers, even friends. We might try to hold onto our children in an unhealthy way—unhealthy for them and for us. Or, our tendency can be to wallow in our loneliness. While others can be helpful, ultimately it is God alone who will offer comfort and help us move forward.

3. Find some friends

A few years ago the two of us were attending a conference in Florida. When we finally had free time, we took a long walk on the beach with our friend Mary. As we walked, we began to ask each other, “What has been going on in your life? Is there a theme of the past year? What have you been thinking, learning, or struggling with?”

All three of us were in different phases of the empty nest. We were all busy with lots of acquaintances in our lives. Yet at the core, each of us felt lonely. We realized that what we longed for was to reconnect with some other women. In a way we felt we’d put deep female friendships on hold for several years as we focused on our kids.

It was now time to move out of that isolation and into community.

Joy had a similar experience. A mother of four and a well-known speaker, she had a meltdown when her last child left. She felt like her identity had just walked out the door. Even though she and her husband were unusually close, she knew he couldn’t really relate to how she was feeling. She needed some other women; they would understand.

Joy decided to be proactive. She called up 13 women she’d known off and on over the years, and together they went away for a weekend. Simply being able to share honestly what was going on in her life and listening to other women made her feel “not so stupid.” And it actually helped her feel normal again.

One of the great blessings of the empty nest is that we now have time to hang out with friends. If we are out of practice, it may be awkward at first, but take the plunge. There are rich relationships out there for you, and the joy that is waiting for you in “girl time” is amazing.

We’ve found it to be one of the best cures for loneliness.

Excerpted from Susan and Barbara's Guide to the Empty Nest © 2008 by Barbara Rainey and Susan Yates. Used by permission of FamilyLife Publishing.

Barbara Rainey has co-authored several best-selling books with her husband, Dennis Rainey, president of FamilyLife. Their books include Moments Together for Couples, Building Your Mate's Self-Esteem, and Rekindling the Romance. The Raineys have six children and an ever-growing population of grandchildren.

Susan Yates is the author of ten books and a regular contributor for Today's Christian Woman magazine. She speaks nationally and internationally on marriage and family and is often heard on the radio. Susan and her husband, John, have been married since 1969 and are the proud parents of five children, and the grandparents of eleven grandchildren and counting.

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