THE EMPTY NEST
The wholeness of a home depends much on its ability to prepare its young to leave the nest and risk trusting their own wings to take them to unknown elsewheres, where they will have to build their individual nest.*
Empty nest – that quiet vacuum of space that takes shape around your child leaving. Permeated with feelings of loss it is a threshing floor to the identity and purpose that has defined a parent for years. For two decades the core of my identity has been mom. I’m still mom but all at once my role is less defined – changing.
Viktor Frankl knew about change. Not the natural movement through seasons of life change – but a change that is painful in a way few of us have had to realize. Viktor Frankl was a survivor of Auschwitz-Birkenau and Dachau concentration camps and he shared the following:
When we are no longer able to change a situation, we are challenged to change ourselves.
The Hebrew word for change used here, chalaph, means to sprout again, renew, change for the better. This type of change can be seen in the book of Job:
For there is hope for a tree, when it is cut down, that it will sprout again (chalaph), and its shoots will not fail. Though its roots grow old in the ground and its stump dies in the dry soil, at the scent of water it will flourish and put forth sprigs like a plant. Job 14:7-9
The word is found also in Isaiah 40:31, where we see that it is a change that comes as we wait on the Lord:
Yet those who wait for the Lord will gain new (chalaph) strength; they will mount up with wings like eagles, they will run and not get tired, they will walk and not become weary.
A tender shoot will grow and new life will spring up. However, we do need to allow ourselves to grieve the loss of the old in order to embrace the new. Empty nest is a time of mourning – a time of letting go. In our western society, where there is tremendous emphasis on individualism, grief reminds us that G-d created us to be a community. The work of grief is not a work to be done alone. There is a world of empty nesters standing on the same threshing floor as you find yourself.
It is good to remember that this liminal space – though a place of grief – is also a place of celebration. Sometimes the emotions that overwhelm our heart need to be turned on their head. In the context of those feelings of abandonment, psychologist Madeline Levine** tells us:
Our children’s independence is a reminder of how much we had to give and all that we have accomplished. It is a pleasure to remember that it is not a form of abandonment but an expression of a job well done – and is something to keep in mind as we move back into the center of our own lives, in ways that will make our children proud.
The rich meaning of chalaph (also translated ‘passes’) reminds us that this too will pass. As with all liminal space, we are reminded annually at the Feast of Sukkot, or Tabernacles, to embrace the shelter of your temporary and fragile sukkah and leave the bricks and mortar at home. Liminal space isn’t the place to build a house but is a passing through – a threshold to something new.
As parents, during years of holding them close and nudging them forward, we have spent our lives giving our children both roots and wings. Roots – providing security, nourishment, and a place in their heart that is always home. And wings – the freedom to fly the nest.
Elizabeth Stone said,
“Making the decision to have a child – it is momentous.
It is to decide forever to have your heart go walking around outside your body.”
That makes us vulnerable but I don’t know one parent who would have it any different.
In general, I’ve found that it can help to look outside myself and see through the perspective of others. There are parents who will never experience an empty nest because their children are not able to spread their wings. Their children are not physically, mentally, or emotionally able to make it on their own. When I think of such circumstances, I can more easily view my empty nest not so much as a gift being taken from me, but rather as a gift I have cared for – will always care for – and am giving back to the Lord. There is something rewarding in the knowledge that we have cared for the daughter G-d has entrusted to me and my husband; and, in doing so, we also have empowered her to take care of herself.
Lastly, be encouraged. We can see in what Rabbi Sacks shares, that letting go and giving your child over to G-d isn’t easy – just look to our Father Abraham:
The principle to which the entire story of Isaac, from birth to binding, is opposed is the idea that a child is the property of the father. First, Isaac’s birth is miraculous. Sarah is already post-menopausal when she conceives. In this respect the Isaac story is parallel to that of the birth of Samuel to Hannah, like Sarah also unable naturally to conceive. That is why, when he is born Hannah says,
“I prayed for this child, and the Lord has granted me what I asked of him. So now I give him to the Lord. For his whole life he will be given over to the Lord.”
This passage is the key to understanding the message from heaven telling Abraham to stop: “Now I know that you fear God, because you have not withheld from Me your son, your only son” (the statement appears twice, in Gen. 22: 12 and 16). The test was not whether Abraham would sacrifice his son but whether he would give him over to God.
As you move through this season of empty-nesting, may you live each day to it’s fullest as a sacred gift from Heaven and may G-d bless you with His peace and His purpose.
~ Cindy Lou Elliot
I had run across a list of “You Know You Are An Empty Nester When…” that brought such a smile to my heart. I thought I’d share a few of my favorites**
You know you are an empty nester when you:
~ send them articles about people who were murdered on a deserted road in Great Britain, indicating what can happen when one moves away from home. Hey, if it can happen to a Mildred in Ravenstonedale, England, it can happen to your Miriam in Riverdale, New York.
~ have them on speed dial, along with their friends, the fire and police departments, local Emergency Rooms, the National Guard — and you can’t remember your own number!
~ call their teachers and anyone who they ever dated … just to “shmooze.” Make sure they know your daughter is still “available.” G-d only knows what will happen to her if you don’t intervene.
~ E-mail or when you use your key, leave little reminder notes, tips, and affirmations, such as “Life is one big tsimmis,” “Your dad and I aren’t getting any younger,” “Call so we know you’re not lying in the street somewhere,” “One sneeze could lead to double pneumonia,” “Did you know a Sukkah could be turned into a bomb shelter?”
~ slip them a few dollars when they visit, saying “Sha …” even while your husband has taken from his pension fund to pay for Medicare supplemental.
* John O’Donohue, To Bless the Space Between Us, pg. 82
** Jewlarious, aish.com
*** Kathleen Noffsinger, Roots and Wings