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When the “Empty Nest” is not so empty

have counseled many parents over the years who were struggling with the thought of having their children move out and “Be on their own.” It’s not that they wished to prevent them from leaving and moving on with life, it’s just that it signaled a new kind of loss that perhaps they weren’t quite ready to accept.  Watching their children grow up is usually a good thing, but there are certainly some difficult moments, especially when adjusting to a quiet house that was once filled with running feet, piles of dirty clothes and grocery bills that gave life to the phrase “Eating us out of house and home.”

However, some parents will tell you that not everyone is given the opportunity to experience the “Empty Nest.” Numerous children are born daily with physical, cognitive and/or disabling needs that require full time care. These parents maintain intense and dedicated schedules that are a commitment for a lifetime, and hopes and dreams of seeing their child “Move out” in the future are taken away from them at the birth of their child.

Just in this last week, I have had two separate mothers who shared some of these raw and intimate feelings with me. “It is a different kind of grief” they stated, “one that we live with daily and yet people don’t seem to “see us” or understand what we are going through.” They talk about the need for specialized caregivers so that they can work outside of the home and they share their heartbreak at watching their other children trying to navigate the life challenges that arise from having a “special needs” sibling. “The thing is”, they said, “Is that some semblance of grief resides within us daily. It’s not to say that we aren’t happy or grateful, because we are, it’s just that our lives present unique opportunities to look at life differently. Because of that, we are more in tune with other families that have been presented with similar situations.”

Of course, not every family feels or even thinks the same way, but it was important enough to acknowledge and address something that many people never even think about because it doesn’t directly impact them. Grief takes on many forms, and over the years I have heard discussions that “discounted” someone’s grief because “their loved one is still alive.” To further explain, they just couldn’t comprehend that a family could grieve someone that was still living.  However, in reality, there are many family systems that struggle with “letting go” of some of the hopes and dreams they held for their child before they were even born. 

Denial, anger, sadness, acceptance etc., are all key parts of acknowledging that new thought processes, new hopes and dreams are a part of healing.