When we think of the empty nest, we picture a variety of colorful visuals. They may be of the optimistic type, where the parents are now free to invest more time and energy into their marriage, pursue long put-off goals and dreams, or simply enjoy the downtime of not being center seat in the parenting role 24/7. Or, on the opposite and often more realistic end of the spectrum, we may visualize the mom in tears, perhaps even struggling with depression now that her children have moved out permanently; maybe the dad is throwing himself even more deeply into his work, keeping so busy and mentally occupied that he doesn’t feel the emotional loss of the empty house.
Whatever goes on in an empty nest house—as it relates to the parents’ responses to this new situation and how it affects their life and marriage—is unique to each family and depends on how the parents have lived out their lives thus far. Whatever coping mechanisms they have relied on in the past to get them through tough times, seasonal challenges, and relational setbacks can easily come into play when the last child leaves the home. If the couple has been utilizing biblical principles for rearing their children, growing their marriage, and as the guidelines for family life in general, parents may adjust to the empty nest without a lot of emotional and mental distress. IF… is the operating word.
To help prepare couples for the upcoming expected, and unexpected, life adjustments that come with being empty nesters, try these suggestions that hone in on three areas of potential concern.
1. Help the parents prepare for a shift in the family dynamic
Ignoring the change that is coming when a child leaves the home for college, a job, or marriage will only serve to the make the adjustment more difficult. As high schoolers or post-college young adults begin their own planning sessions to move away and out of the home, parents will find it less painful if they assist their children in decision-making and in executing the logistics of the move.
Encourage the parents to think of the plan of execution as a family endeavor to send their child off with love and enthusiasm, such as in planning for a family vacation. The parents and child can find ways to get the whole family involved in planning by delegating age-appropriate responsibilities and tasks to everyone in the family and making it a joint effort from start to finish. Suggest that they consider each person’s age and skill set and put each family member to best use, and that they have periodic family meetings (around the dinner table or out to eat) to discuss progress and setbacks.
Over time, natural family emotions will necessarily rise to the surface during the discussions, but this is good and helps relieve and diffuse the tension that everyone will feel but may express differently. The most important aspect that makes this “sending off of a family member” go well is that the entire family is unifying for the same cause—thus creating a stronger, more resilient, and lasting bond that will thrive despite time, distance, and life changes.
2. Encourage the parents to give themselves (and each other) grace during the adjustment season
Everyone handles loss differently. Men and women frequently work through their emotional pain in completely dissimilar ways. Parents who are just entering the empty nest season will view this change from their own perspective. Depending upon the parents’ personalities, their relationship with the child, and how they have learned to cope with emotional upsets/changes in the past will affect how they manage the challenges that come with the empty nest.
You might ask couples to consider how they worked through earlier challenges and hardships to get them to identify their strong points as well as their weak responses. Guide couples to recognize that they may need to change how they have responded in the past and work hard to create new, healthy, biblically sound methods for coping with pain and loss.
Another suggestion is to create a simple survey that each partner could answer that pertains to how the couple anticipates their marriage will be in the empty nest. Questions such as:
- Will our marriage thrive now that we are alone again?
- What do we expect will be the most challenging aspect of the empty nest?
- How can I help my spouse work through his/her own feelings of loss and grief?
- What can we do as a couple to make our marriage stronger and fulfilling?
- Are there ministry opportunities now available to us as empty nesters?
Or you could use these topics as conversation starters when you meet with couples or for the couples to use on their own. Above all, get the conversation going and keep current with their expectations, feelings, hopes, and desires.
3. Teach them to celebrate every season of family life
One of the most valuable and life-giving perspectives that couples can learn to work on and develop for their individual health and their family’s well-being is that of honing a disciplined, thankful, grateful spirit and heart. The bottom line is that all of life is in motion, and taking seriously God’s admonition to pray always and give thanks for everything (1 Thess. 5:17–18) is key to overcoming even the most difficult challenges. Learning to lean into God relationally and into His life-giving Word with daily intent will make a tremendous difference in how couples see the empty nest season.
Sure, it can get lonely when a once-loud, bustling household is so quiet the parents can hear their own (or their spouse’s) almost-silent sigh. However, there are specific upsides to every change as well. You might ask couples to spend a week creating a list of everything positive about becoming empty nesters, even down to a reduced food budget or a clean entryway. You could also recommend that couples do a word search through Scripture together to locate, highlight, and commit to memory verses about the robust power of being a thankful person.
Final words for pastors to help prepare parents
- Remind the couples that they were united first together before they had children. Even in remarriages, the husband and wife bond should always be the priority relationship that funnels positively down to the children. Help couples to revisit this principle and then get busy remaking, reviving, and remolding their relationship if they have neglected it.
- Help couples view the empty nest season of life not as the end of their parenting roles, but as a shift in it. Parenting never ends. But it does morph and change as the children grow up. Help them to recognize that they have been spending the last eighteen-plus years readying their child to become a productive, godly, other-centered adult in society. Celebrate that accomplishment.
- Respect the grief process of both spouses, but don’t allow them to stay stuck in it. Keep encouraging couples to acknowledge their emotional pain, feel it, and then take it to God (and to each other). Remind couples of the unifying power of praying together when they are hurting. Recommend they begin serving together in some capacity to get their hearts and lives focused on giving rather than sitting home and spiraling into an emotional funk.
For insights on parenting adult children, take a look at How Pastors Can Help Empty Nesters with Their Parenting by Michele Howe. You’ll also benefit from reading the correlation between empty nesters and the rise of what is called “gray divorce” in Steve Grissom’s The Rise of Boomer Divorces.