After years of boundless nurture and care, the time must come when every child will spread their wings and go off to start a life of their own. For parents, this could leave one facing what psychologists have described as ‘empty nest syndrome’.
The grief that many parents experience after their children leave home is known as empty nest syndrome. It is more likely to affect women since they are more likely to have been the primary caregivers.
“I think every single parent who has had a child leave their home has gone through it at some point,” said Mehreen Mia Cassimjee, who is a certified life coach. “It’s something many parents themselves don’t even know about. Many are unaware that such exists and if they know about it, it becomes a stigma.”
Cassimjee pointed out that the grief that comes with empty nest syndrome is dissimilar to that which occurs upon the passing on of a loved one.
“This is a different sort of grief as opposed to somebody passing on. This is where your child is moving away from your environment. You did everything for this child. Everything about your life focused around this child,” she said.
“What happens is this child now has to move away and the emptiness that comes with that is what develops within you as this empty nest syndrome,” Cassimjee explained.
According to Cassimjee, there are ways to deal with empty nest syndrome before and after it strikes.
For parents already facing empty nest syndrome, Cassimjee explained that the first step would be to identify and understand the challenges one faces. Thereafter, the parent may make adjustments accordingly.
She said, “If the child has to leave, your life becomes a little bit more stressed than it was. You become emotional [and] a little bit irritable because your norm is not normal anymore”.
Some parents, she said, may have to assess the current state of their marriage as they could have been “stuck” in it just for the sake of their child all along. Or perhaps the child might have left to get married, inadvertently leaving the parents to feel replaced.
Cassimjee said that over the course of her career as a counsellor, she often noticed that “a child gets married and the parent is happy for the marriage itself, but the fear factor is ‘am I being replaced with that spouse?’”
She said this could lead to undesirable behaviour such as interference in the child’s marriage. However, Cassimjee said it is important for children “to realise what happens to their parents and what they go through”.
“You really have to understand that these parents really do build themselves around the children,” she said.
For parents who may not have had to send their children off as yet, Cassimjee emphasised the importance of maintaining a sense of individuality. She said parents tend to forget this aspect with the demands of their role.
“It is so important for us to really keep the sense of individuality no matter what role we play in people’s lives because even as a parent we tend to forget that before I’m a mother [and] before I’m a wife, I am still an individual,” she said.
“We lack the sense of individuality when we become so engrossed in the role of being the parent,” she said, explaining that “when we become the mother we forget that I’m a person and when the child has to leave home, that sense of independence has to come back.”
Cassimjee said the sudden return of a sense of independence can become challenging for parents as they no longer recognise their individuality.
This is the time to pursue one’s “one day list”, referring to ambitions that had been put off to prioritise parental obligations.