Recently I’ve heard many parents talk about the grief they’re feeling as their children leave home for the first time. Perhaps due to the pandemic, and spending so much time together during lockdowns, the loss has been felt harder than usual. And it’s often completely unexpected. 

This empty nest syndrome, that Caroline Hanson so eloquently explores in her list, is something she always knew was coming, and is exactly as it should be, yet the pain and emptiness she has felt has left her bereft.


  • The thought of my children leaving home has been consistently erratic since I became a mother almost 20 years ago. A fusion of the end goal, the whole point, the intention of parenting (surrendering an independent, well-balanced adult ready to navigate the world) and a line in the sand; a profound sadness for the point at which everything changes.

  • I always knew it would come, yet I never fully understood how it would feel. Like anything: until you experience it you simply haven’t got a clue.

  • You know when something creeps up on you and you are surprised by its arrival, even though you always knew it was coming? That has been me, particularly these last few months. I kept trying to suspend time. Although aware he would leave home in six, three, two months, a week, one more night… I endeavoured to live in the moment of being with him, not thinking of how it may feel when he was gone. I was striving to be fully present so that I carried no remorse about the time we DID have together, these last few months; I was attempting to attune with him as deeply as I could to enable the soundest of foundations to which he can return.

  • Just as it has had its unexpected impact on all things, lockdown has made our son’s departure even more brutal. His incarcerated gap year increased the amount of time we spent together, just at the point when naturally our time would have been less and less. The bonds within our family were equally strengthened and challenged – yet it is a bit unusual for an 18/19-year-old to be sitting at home almost every Friday night for a year under the roof of their parents.

  • Since his birth, I feathered the nest, filled it with four incredibly and deliciously different babies and finally, far from unexpectedly, the firstborn has flown.

  • This is what I have learned this last week as he took flight to university at 19 ½ years old:

  • I’m not nearly as ready as I thought I was. Most of my parenting journey has been focussed on this point – a bit like the birth prep course I took before he was born, when all discussion was on the birth itself and none on baby care, breastfeeding, PND or identity loss, I am lost. The difference now is that I know I will find myself again. That this pain is part of the loving. That the heartache and the empty space he filled will settle and in fact is a celebration.

  • That it’s ok to grieve. Yes, thank goodness, my boy is alive and well and in fact, he may well be having the best time of his life. I recognise that losing him from the world entirely would take a different shape and affect me (and those around me who also love and adore him) in a way I haven’t experienced. Loss, however, is loss and the hole in my world that took the shape of my son feels huge. And I don’t need to gaslight it with comments in my head such as “He’s not dead. Get over it.” Conscious Parenting has taught me this.

  • That there is the soundtrack of my son everywhere I look. His room. Photos of him as a baby, small boy, big boy, young man… Clothes in the laundry basket. His favourite food. The half-read book. I notice that this symphony has played through my days for the last 20 years. Where before I wanted him to knock thoughtfully at my door and be aware of disturbing me (especially during my work), I now want him to barge in to ask for something. I want to hear his noise and know he is near – yes, even at 3am!

  • I hadn’t realised how aware of his everyday being I was. In the last few weeks, watching him pack, prepare and plan his admin, I walked alongside him. I now want to ask – what did you decide to wear in the end? Who have you met? What are they like? When do your lessons start? What does your room look like (naturally, he wanted to set it up himself. Naturally, I wanted to see it done)? Is the food ok (I don’t need to worry about him eating: he’s catered for)? Did you read my letter (that I wrote with my pithy attempts of life advice – my last ditch, pathetic (in the truest sense) attempt to equip him for the future as though I’m never going to have time to chat stuff through ever again). So needy in this moment and trying so desperately to give him space – a battle within myself to accept letting him go on to the next phase of his life.

  • I walked alongside him these last few weeks, just as I have walked alongside him for almost 20 years. This sudden cut off as he immerses himself in his new life – entirely right, appropriate, and precisely what he is ready to do – leaves me bereft and missing him viscerally. There is no coincidence that I lost my voice during the days of his departure (I didn’t have words anyway) nor that it travelled to my chest. My heart truly ached.

  • This walking alongside – also known as attunement – has allowed me to learn so very much about myself. The boy – now man – whom I miss so deeply, has shaped the person I have become. I have come to fathom the purest love. I have a clearer grasp on the art of letting go. I have figured out that it is not my role to mend the pain of others. I can now, through his teaching, be alongside while the emotions of others (my children) play out. Not always; but a damn sight more than I used to be able to do.

  • Having sought presence in his presence these last few months, I have laid myself open to pain. The pain of him no longer being near me. Yet, had I not allowed myself the raw edge of presence, I would have missed so many tiny moments of connection. My heart would not be hurting so horribly, nor would it have expanded with even more love: a possibility I continue to underestimate.

  • The biggest lesson he has taught me? Kids smell bullshit from a very early age. They may not be able to verbalise it fully or articulately yet. That time I told him he would be ok when I wasn’t sure? My authentic “I don’t know. I’m here for you” would have had so much more power and have been so much more useful to him.

  • I have become acutely aware that I am reaching for distractions from these intense and painful feelings of loss. Since I started meditating around 2006, I notice myself more and clock my reactions. I hadn’t previously fully noticed my tendency to play mind numbing games on my phone when I hurt. I know I am inclined to stay up late when I am overwhelmed; this tendency to fill hours with sudoku and nonograms is yet another crazy addictive pattern as it draws me away from myself, my partner and my other 3 kids just as gambling, alcohol and drugs would do. There are not the same financial or social implications – yet there are definitely health implications when I stay up late drawn into a parallel universe. Just one more, I find myself saying.

  • There is nothing more certain than change.

  • Letting go is the most difficult part of parenting. I have spent years preparing him and preparing me for this time. My deep wish is to honour who he is. These last years – particularly since mid-teens – my intention has been to accept his decisions about how he lives his life and what he chooses to do and being available to support him when he feels he has made bad ones. To avoid judgement, shame and “I told you so”. To witness while I love, rather than coerce, control, and navigate into a version of him which suits me best. It has taken tremendous self-control and conscious choice at times. I’ve come close to breaking point. And here I am, letting go.

  • Conversely, in all of this, is an overwhelming sense of relief, which hasn’t yet fully unfolded for me. The first relief is that he is on the path of his choosing. At one point, it seemed that COVID was going to take this choice from him. There have been times when it was uncertain what would happen next. To be explicit: the specific direction of his next stage was of little consequence to me. However, after the last two years of unpredictability, it is reassuring to know that a purpose has emerged. For now. Like I said, nothing is more certain than change.

  • The second is the space that has been created for the next stage in our family trajectory. Having been restless about this moment for so long, it feels good to be at the other side of it. Nostalgia serves a purpose: it keeps us connected with our roots and it will forever keep our family of six connected through a shared common experience. It gives us a sense of belonging. There is a definite sadness for our family unit of six happy souls bouncing on the bed, bickering around the dinner table, and snuggling on the sofa in front of the tv. I adore watching five backs walk ahead on the common as I lock the image forever in my memory bank. I remind myself that the sole aim of bringing up children is the cycle of life, is letting them go trusting that the foundations laid are solid enough to give them a soft landing when they briefly return.

  • And then the feeling of how apt and fitting starts to settle upon me, like a cosy and familiar blanket. Like the smell of cinnamon and the warmth of the yummiest red wine… as we walked away from each other that afternoon, the Cathedral bells sang after us – a sound that has long given me cosy comfort. Ah yes. This is so … right.

* For more information on conscious parenting, have a look at Caroline’s website



Psychology Today on Empty Nest Syndrome:


** ‘But why is there blood in the toilet?’ ‘But why do people die and are they just sleeping?’ and “But why do adults drink beer and what does it do?’ are some of the tricky questions I tackle in my debut book BUT WHY? which is available to order now  and also on audiobook.**



–  READ Sue Higgs’ list The Truth About Parenting Teenagers as she hilariously shares all that goes with being a mum to teens.

–  READ This Is Grief by Vikki Muston, whose list is full of useful tips and suggestions.

–  LISTEN to  Cat & Nat talk Motherhood on Honestly podcast and how it’s a rollercoaster of the brilliant and the wildly difficult.



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1 Comment

  • Reply Jane Millward October 17, 2021 at 9:17 am

    This post made me weep. After nearly 40 years of having one child or another of my 5 at home or at least back home in university holidays (and the youngest home during lock down) the realisation is that all 5 have gone now .The youngest has a job and has a permanent base elsewhere. It creates a deep sense of loss and bereavement. Each time a child goes the pain is real and I thank Caroline for putting into words so beautifully what every mother (or father) goes through when their child /children fly the nest .

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