A Ritual for the Empty Nest
This is an excerpt from our upcoming book Reverence: Rituals in Modern Life. This essay was contributed by Kathleen Joy.
Empty nesting is an experience many people have when their last child leaves the family home. A child’s departure can disrupt the of sense of what is normal and routine and leave mothers (and fathers) feeling loss, sadness, anxiety, grief, or fear. The roles between the parent and child change as a young adult take on more independence. There is also an energetic departure: the bonding fields of the parents and child shift, and this can leave some feeling void and vacant in parts of their being.
Empty nesting is a phenomenon that is easily referred to and understood in many cultures, but social traditions to help parents move through this new phase of life are often lacking. Some folks—perhaps prepared by their communities—adjust easily and welcome the new normal. They may feel gratitude, a sense of completion, or even relief. Others, however, can be caught up in grief, resenting the changes. They experience longer-term disorientation, cling harder to their children, or indulge in destructive behaviors. But acknowledging and consciously moving through the process of empty nesting can be very valuable to the vitality and wellness of the parents as well as the young adult.
For joy’s sake, let’s view the empty nest experience as an invitation into a new, deeper version of you: the birthing of a new set of roles, dreams, and creative possibilities. You may already have some great adventure or distraction in mind to help fill the gap. You may have friends, family, or even a professional with whom to talk. Perhaps your plan is to ignore it all, and just carry on as usual. But in case you find yourself with an unanswered need, the following affirming ritual might aid you through this life initiation. There are four parts:
- Thorns and Roses, the pre-celebration ritual
- The Recognition, the ritualized celebration
- Integration for completion
- Check-Ins for continued well-being
Thorns and Roses
This exercise is best done with a friend or professional who is good at holding space for you and listening. It is what I call the “authorized moaning” exercise. It allows you to express things that may not be so acceptable, tidy, or correct, and to do so in a safe space—so that you can release those constructs without shame or blame. Once you name and clear that negative space you can dive into some of the more subtle beauties of the moment.
- For three minutes just speak, without interruption, about the “Thorns” (difficulties) of your empty nest. Verbalize how you are feeling and give voice to what exactly you don’t like experiencing and thinking about. Express what you feel is wrong or unfair, what’s indifferent, any regrets you might have, anything you experience as hurtful, difficult, sad, screwed up, or challenging about this moment. Express the “should,” and your unmet needs. Your listener is there to simply acknowledge that everything you are experiencing is indeed your experience at this moment – they are not to offer solutions or commentary. Their job is just to listen compassionately.
- Then, take a few deep breaths and let it all go. Go wash your hands. Get a hug if you’d like.
- Next, for three minutes, dive into all the things that you appreciate about this transition; the unexpected gifts, lessons, and forgiveness given; the new openings, and gratitude. Be sure to offer thanks to yourself and others. Be sure to fill these “Rose” moments with all that is and has been working and affirming for you. Be generous.
You may repeat this exercise three times ONLY, in three sittings (possibly with different people), so make each time count. After the third time—once these stories you tell yourself about the empty nest transition are consciously released—you can begin to prepare for Mother’s Day.
This ritual is about celebrating your amazing accomplishment of raising a human being. It can include whomever you’d like, and as many as you wish. It can take place as lunch with a friend, a day spent in nature, a gathering in your living room, a block party, or a night out! What is important to keep in mind is the purpose of the event and doing what delights you.
To acknowledge the astonishing amount of energy, attention, intention, and effort you’ve put into raising a person. To feel celebrated and seen for your accomplishments as a parent. To mark a phase of completion.
Think of this event as your ultimate Mother’s Day. What would make you feel loved, seen, cherished, and honored as a parent? A bouquet of flowers? A “Best Mom Ever” card? A certificate of completion? Your favorite cake? Make sure that one or all of those things happen for you! Other options:
-Take a ritual bath. Prepare and dress yourself for this occasion. Use special soaps, oils (bergamot is good for releasing grief, orange for lifting spirits), and other skin, hair, or body treatments.
- Put on a meaningful token or jewelry. Wear your favorite clothes. Feel exceptional in your own skin.
-Ask your child for a love letter: a note of appreciation for the attributes, values, character, or wisdom they received from you. Have someone read it to you.
-Ask your partner/spouse/best friend for the same type of letter, written from the point of view of someone who has witnessed what you’ve done over the years.
-Offer yourself a gift, of create your own award certificate. Include gold stars!
-Plant something in a garden to represent your new growth.
-Decorate your space in a celebratory or joyful manner. Flowers are always a winner.
-Have something special (to you) to drink; anything from chic sparkling water to fresh juice, from exotic tea to champagne or a fancy cocktail. Raise a glass to toast this amazing passage!
-Speak about and acknowledge all the mothers who have come before you: those in your family, through many generations; those in your community; those around the world. Take a moment to deeply absorb and appreciate the power of motherhood throughout time. Send out a blessing to all mothers on the planet.
-Memorialize the moment with a photograph, a note, a pressed flower, or some other token.
Enjoy this special occasion and really let the celebration embrace and thank you for your love, devotion, and service. And please note – This ritual, with many of the same aspects, can and should be conducted by fathers, too!
This is an opportunity for you to write your own prayers, or affirmations to life, to help you sustain your passage over time. Below is an example; feel free to use or modify. Read it as often as needed or desired. I kept this prayer on my bedroom dresser, along with flowers and some meaningful tokens, so that I was able to see it every day. Leave it where it is available for you to see for up to a full year.
I have ushered a sacred being into this world, truly my labor of love.
It’s been trying, challenging, and testing.
It’s been delightful, surprising, and propelling.
It’s been my honor.
I now leave my most precious offering to You and the World.
I ask that You protect, guide, and love this person, as I have.
I ask that You also turn your gaze to me and help me on my new journey.
May the unfolding of this next chapter be loving and kind,
Peaceful and filled with ease.
May I be happy.
May I be healthy.
May I continue to discover and enjoy the many purposes You, Life, offer me.
For the benefit of all, I pray.
After the initial rituals are completed, you may need a little bit of daily or weekly maintenance for additional support. Whenever you start to feel a bit wobbly around the departure of your child, try these mindful reflections to get some data on how you really are and what needs attention. This is a soft meditation, and if you’d like to keep notes in a journal to track your journey, please do! Begin by:
- Getting comfortable
- Sitting with your back upright
- Feet flat on the floor
- Arms resting comfortably
- Then take three belly breaths: Deeply, Slowly
- Eyes can be closed or have a soft, wide gaze
- Be present with yourself
Once you are settled, gently ask yourself these questions and note the responses you receive.
What am I aware of from my head?
- What am I thinking?
- Solving problems
- Sounds in the room
- Something that happened recently—or long ago
- Ideas, Worries, Concerns
Now lower your attention to your heart.
What am I aware of from my heart?
- What am I feeling?
- Is there a predominant mood or emotion?
- What sensations are these feelings creating for me?
Broaden your awareness to the whole of your body.
What am I aware of in my body?
- How does my weight rest on the chair? My legs? Arms?
- Is there any contraction in my neck, belly, or hands?
- Any aching in my back, shoulders, or legs?
- Where do I feel most relaxed?
- Is there a temperature or texture I’m feeling?
- My jaw: Is it tight or loose?
Once you’ve scanned your mind, heart, and body, ask yourself: Is there anything I need to acknowledge, care for, or ask for in this moment? If so, take a step to address those needs. You can do this ritual on a daily or weekly basis. It’ll help you track where and how you are doing with the transition.
Empty nesting can last for days, weeks, or even longer. Many experience it with some intensity for about a semester’s time, while others have periodic moments of feeling the impact of the change. Regardless of your timeframe, take the time to honor your transition and passage. This is as a special moment in your life, and stepping through this door with wisdom, compassion, and intention will open new discoveries and dimensions for you.
Kathleen Joy is a proud empty-nester of two inspiring young women. She is also the founder of LumiereWork which designs experiences that invoke creative problem-solving and evolutionary shifts for executives, teams, and organizations. Another role Kathleen plays is that of a performing artist who builds interactive installations that focus on self-discovery, community, and compassion. In 2012, she started a project with teenagers called Letters to the Universe, which “toured” during the summers and collected over 5000 notes. Kathleen continues to create thoughtful and engaging experiences, including "Social Distortion","Inspirita" among others. She is currently writing a book combining her passions called “The User’s Guide to the School of Earth: Orientation”.