Flying the coop
Many couples experience grief when last child leaves home

As Diane Venturi walked through the aisles of the grocery store, it hit her. All too soon, her grocery bill would be cut in half.

In a few mere weeks, her only son would be flying the coop, making his way to Georgia Southern University. As he ventures into this exciting time in a young man's life, his parents have been left behind to deal with the silence of a near-empty house.

"I know it will be all OK eventually. But when I lay down at night and it's all I can think about, well, it doesn't feel OK," said the Duluth resident. "I know it's something all parents go through, but it's still just so hard."

In an effort to fill the void, the Venturis added another dog to their home. But, she said, a canine is no replacement for a son.

"It helps, but it's not the same," she said.

What the Venturis are feeling isn't abnormal. It's called empty nest syndrome, and it's something felt by plenty of parents, said Dr. Tom McIntyre, a psychologist and marriage therapist in Snellville. Parents typically feel emotions of grief and loss, most often associated with a child leaving home for the first time.

Traditionally, it's felt when the last child leaves home, or, as in Venturi's case, when an only child goes their own way. That's not to say it only happens in these cases though, McIntyre said.

"It can happen when any child leaves home, whether that be for college or to get married," he said. "Many folks experience it, and it can be a difficult transition."

Then there were two

When a child leaves home, families that were once comprised of several people dwindle down to just two, and many couples go through a rocky period. Learning to be a couple again can be tricky, especially if the family was centered around a child, McIntyre said.

Venturi was quick to note that she has experienced this, often wondering "How do we go from being a family of three to being just a couple again?" she said. "For so long it was the three of us, and now, well. It's just two."

Rather than reacting to this major lifestyle change with strife, McIntyre encourages his patients to view this circumstance as a challenge and a time for personal growth. He suggests couples develop hobbies to share with each other, and engage in activities the two of them enjoyed before having children.

"It's your chance to be the two of you," he said. "Remember what it was like before you had the children, and try to rekindle that. Travel, go to dinner with friends, do the things you enjoy doing. You don't have the kids there to worry about as much anymore."

Single parents should try to take on new interests for themselves, immerse themselves in a career or finish up a long-awaited goal, such as obtaining a college degree, McIntyre recommended.

"It's important also to talk to your friends and others who have gone through the same thing," he said. "If your feelings of sadness continue for more than a month or two, it may then be time to consider seeing a professional, such as your physician or a psychologist."

Venus and Mars

in the nest

As Venturi can attest, empty nest syndrome doesn't just affect mothers.

"My husband has been feeling it too, but in different ways," she said.

As they do with most things, men and women approach this life change in different ways. Women tend to be more open with their feelings and share their woes with friends. Men, however, are more prone to bottling up their emotions and carrying their grief silently, McIntyre said.

"It's commonly assumed the empty nest syndrome is something only women feel, but that's not true. Women are just more vocal about it," he said. "Men feel it, too, but typically, men feel it in a quieter way."

Being open with your partner is key to coping with a child leaving home, he said. The more open a couple is, the more likely they are to share in their feelings and build a bond over the common experience.

"This isn't a phase that will last forever, and talking about it is important," McIntyre said. "It's a difficult experience, but it's also a great opportunity to rebuild your life. I've seen plenty of couples grab this opportunity and really do something positive with it."