A $50 Sunbeam microwave oven sits on my basement floor. The device is positioned haphazardly, and it partially obstructs the path to our basement fridge. A Target build-it-yourself cube bookcase looks awkward in our living room. Caddy-corner to the cube is a pile of unopened bedding: a masculine grey plaid comforter, mattress liner, grey sheets, and pillowcases. On the second floor of our home resides a collection of random objects: a folding solar panel, a Kiato worldband radio, a universal AC plug adapter, and a brand new teal blue Hydro Flask.
The microwave and storage unit belongs to my daughter, Grace, who will be returning for her second year of university where she is studying Psychology and Pre-Medicine. The plaid comforter is my son William’s, who will be starting university majoring in Biology and Chemistry. The random items on the second floor are owned by my daughter, Kathryn, a recent graduate who will be spending the next 2 and ½ years in Africa teaching math as a Peace Corps Volunteer.
I have been an active parent for the last 36 years, and with the departure of my youngest children, I will become an empty nester. In less than four weeks, my life will change in the most radical of ways.
I can already see the stress that this change is causing Julie, my wife. She has become quieter, and I can feel her distancing herself from me. I’m not taking offense to her actions, as I know that she is defending against her loss feelings with everything that she can. Past experiences predict that her former self will return soon after our last child is safely in their new environment.
But how are these changes impacting me? That is a more difficult question as I tend to deal with negative feelings more obtusely. I do feel anxious. Am I really anxious?
I remember worrying as a child. My mother was chronically ill with a severe form of diabetes, and it was not uncommon for her to be near death. I recall countless times when my father would wake me up in the middle of the night during one of her insulin reactions. I would find her sitting on a kitchen chair drenched in sweat. Her head would be lying limply on the kitchen table, and she would be moaning.
In most instances, she would revive with a large glass of orange juice laced with sugar, and life would return to normal. However, there were other times when her blood sugar was too high instead of too low. Those times an ambulance would be called, and she would be whisked off to the hospital. During these episodes, my dad would wake everyone in the house. After my mother was taken by ambulance (which could be at two or three in the morning), my father would send me to bed with the expectation that I would go to school the next day. Now isolated from the rest of the family, I would feel hopeless, alone, and very anxious. I would pray for my mother’s health during these times. Unfortunately, my obsessive nature would also kick in, and I would believe that I had to say a series of prayers entirely, or my mother would be in mortal danger. It was common for me to fall asleep mid-prayers only to wake up to start the whole block of prayers again (if you are Catholic, think rosary). This staring to pray and then falling asleep could go on for the remainder of the night The next day the rest of the family would take the day off from work to sleep and to console each other, I honestly don’t know why I wasn’t included. Perhaps it was felt that kids don’t worry, or maybe it was just easier not to have to deal with me. With that said, those post-ambulance school days were miserable for me.
My prayer behavior suggests that I had a lot of anxiety, which I tried to silence with compulsive actions. But was that anxiety another mask to help cope with my feelings of isolation and sadness? I think the latter may be more accurate as (in this example) prayer helped my anxiety as I could turn my request over to God. However, in those days, I had no strategies to deal with isolation and sadness.
Now at 66, I believe that I’m once again using anxiety to mask my sad and lonely feelings. However, with years of life experience, I now have tools to deal with these emotions.
I can explore if I have any control over a situation. For instance, I do have concerns over Kathryn going to Africa, but I have no control over her actions as she is an independent adult.
I can ask myself if my concerns are valid. I worry about my college kid’s safety, but their new environments are likely as safe as their current one.
I can assess if I am reading my feelings correctly. In this case, I’m feeling sad and dealing with loss and not anxiety.
Why am I sad? I’m sad because I’ll miss my kids, who are an integral part of my life.
What is the reality of that loss? They will be physically away from me, but I can still have regular contact with them.
What is the likely outcome of this change? They will become self-sufficient adults. I will not lose them and this separation is temporary.
What else can I do to reduce my sadness? I can explore the benefits of being an empty nester. I can travel without burdening Julie with additional responsibilities. I can also travel with Julie more spontaneously and less expensively. I can explore other interests. I can learn new things. And so on.
Naturally, I can still (and do) pray, just not as obsessively or magically.
Do these techniques eliminate my feelings? Of course not. However, when I start to feel myself sliding downward, it is easy to revisit these skills and feel better. Dear reader, it is OK to feel sad; I don’t want it to be my dominant feeling at a time when I should also be experiencing happiness. The reality is that my kids are all doing incredible things that will help them become more competent adults. I need to recognize and celebrate these positive changes and not focus exclusively on my loss.
Life is full of transitions, and many of them are bittersweet. Kids going off to college, the loss of an elderly but suffering parent, transitioning from work life to a retired one; humans feel. However, it is pointless to sink into an abyss of despair. It is important to acknowledge feelings, understand them, and appropriately act on them. However, it makes no sense to be so consumed by feelings that you lose the joy of daily life… and as in all things, one foot in front of the other is sometimes the best way to get out of a negative place.
Dear reader, have you had to deal with anxiety, sadness, or the stress of life transitions? I hope that some of my techniques will be useful to you. Or perhaps you can explore your techniques using the above model as a template.