In families where there have been good relationships, where families are close, the changes that come when the children grow up can bring confusing feelings. There is a sadness that accompanies the passing of time. It cannot be pinpointed; It cannot really be named. We have come up with words to try to describe this sort of…loneliness. It isn't something that waits until all the children are gone and then suddenly happens. This…melancholy that grows more evident with each child's graduation from high school, each move into a college dorm, or down the wedding aisle.
It grows with awareness that a parent is no longer the most important person her children’s lives. When, waiting for the birth of a grandchild they are asked to leave their child’s side so she and her spouse can rest. Don’t get me wrong, that son-in-law or significant other is a welcome new member of the family, a well-loved new child in his own way. Still, his presence represents a barrier to the continuity that was once your child’s love for you.
This whole thing; this ebb and flow of love and life is as old as humanity, I suppose. Somehow, knowing this does not make the experience any less…
Painful? Humbling? Frightening?
The sense of loss is real
This experience is one that most parents must be faced with as their children grow up. I don’t believe that it’s faced only by mothers, though perhaps it is the mothers who feel the ground beneath their feet rumble more violently.
Throughout the years we’ve heard this feeling referred to as “Empty Nest Syndrome.” It's a sort of depression that parents feel with their children move away. A mother without her children may feel like she has no reason to get up in the morning. She’s given everything to them, what else does she have to give?
Of course, this is not true, and mothers know it isn’t true.
Yet, there is a “hiccup” in their space-time continuum. Something is missing from their day. There is an adjustment period, just as there is with any other life-altering event. Once the children have moved on, the parents still want to be an important part of their lives.
Parents crave being a part of their adult children’s special occasions, just as their children have been a part of all their special occasions since birth. Their children’s weddings and the birth of new grandchildren are times when a parent is proud, excited, and expectant. Yet these are also times when a parent can feel left out.
Of course, this is never intentional on the part of the children. After all, it’s not their parents’ time, it’s theirs. They are focused, as they should be, on the joy that surrounds them in their new experience. I believe that most parents realize this, and would do their best not to let the disconcerting, unnamable miasma that they feel infringe upon their children’s happiness.
Sadly, though, the parent may not have anyone to discuss this feeling with. They may feel that there’s something wrong with them for feeling this thing they cannot name. As they think about it, they may feel that they are being silly, that others would only think they are jealous of their children’s joy. In their silence, they may struggle with their worth as a parent and as a person.
It occurs to me that there is a need for chaplains, pastors, counselors, spiritual guides, and others to recognize that in the mad rush of the joyful moments in the families they are serving, there may be someone else who needs care.
Someone whose needs are being missed. Someone who will not advertise their needs; someone who will say “I’m fine! I couldn’t be happier!” While this person might be a father or a mother, it could be a sibling or a close friend.
When pastors hear of those in their parishes who are celebrating the marriage of a child or a sibling, of the birth of a grandchild, niece, or nephew, perhaps they should take a moment to check in with their parishioners. Then, when the hustle and bustle is all over, check in again.
Counselors, chaplains, pastors, and even friends, need to remember to tell each mother or father of a grown child that they have not become extraneous. They are still needed.
As a person who seeks to be a compassionate spiritual guide, I want to remember to be present with the folks who feel left behind as they struggle with the guilty feelings associated with this sense of loss. I want to help them see that they are still important in the lives of their loved ones, and one day, the feeling of being left out will pass.
After all, it is but the ebb and flow in the River of Life.
This story first appeared in Bouncin and Behavin Blogs on Medium