Over the next couple of weeks a strange and unfamiliar sound will ring out in homes all over the UK: the deafening noise of silence in an empty void once filled with other treasured and familiar sounds. This, for thousands of families, is the soundtrack of a newly-empty nest.
The next fortnight sees an exodus for more than half a million teenagers (682,010, if you want to be a stickler for accuracy) setting out on the next stage of their life journey and leaving behind what has been, in most cases, the 18-year emotional safety of family life.
One thing is certain. There will be tears. Tears shed silently (and maybe not so silently) behind the closed doors of halls of residence flats, along with the sobbing in the parental cars making the journey back to the oppressive emptiness of a once-full house.
This, then, is the annual landscape of bereavement that punctuates the start of the freshers term.
Bereavement may sound over-dramatic, of course. After all, those 682.010 souls will be migrating home again in around three months’ time, and the joys of technology mean we’re only a Zoom or iPhone screen away from spending time with them in between.
But the grief of separation can’t be underestimated, although the child’s loss looks and feels a little different to his or her parents’.
For the child there may be a sense of mourning the familiar and the secure. In most cases the child’s basic needs have been met, more or less without the need for them to think about it, for 18 years or more.
The sights and sounds of the place where they live are as familiar to them as the back of their hand. They have grown up with lifelong friends or, at least, friends they have known in secondary school.
Even in the most proactive families, the ones that encourage children to be as independent as possible, a parent or guardian has usually been a constant and dependable Plan B for those that have secure attachments with their caregivers.
Our children feel a sense of excitement at the freedom they are about to enjoy, certainly.
But now, thrust into a new and unfamiliar environment from which close friends and family are absent and in which they must now step up to the task of clothing and feeding themselves, of paying their way and of taking responsibility for being self-starting, they also feel something else: anxiety and fear.
In turn, the sobbing parent sobs partly because they know that this anxiety is what their child is experiencing, even if it’s anxiety tinged with anticipation. It is a small, helpless sob of knowing that you’ve just been made redundant from the one job you were designed to do: provide insulation from all the fear and nastiness that this tough old world can throw up.
But there’s something more intrinsic here, tool, because parents live with their own terror and it’s a constant companion from the moment a child is born. The child never sees this, of course, or if they do they misinterpret it as meddling or controlling or interfering behaviour.
It’s the fear that something awful will happen to the child. This fear is easier to make peace with when the child is living at home and you’re on hand most of the time to provide that ring of protection. But now, with your 18-year-old bundle of joy 😉 200 miles away, you don’t have the same influence or control.
And as if that sense of helplessness isn’t a lot to cope with already, the parent also has to deal with the fact that a fellow human being upon which their whole world has been focused for nearly 20 years is no longer present in day-to-day life.
That pain of separation can never be truly understood by your children because that sort of awareness is generally wasted on the young. But it’s a sense of loss that is felt in the very core of a parent’s being.
And it doesn’t end there, because with that sense of loss also comes the realisation that almost overnight your child is going to go from having spent nearly two decades being almost entirely dependent on you every day to not needing you at all on a daily basis.
In that sense, university life is the closure of one of the most important chapters in the lives of both the parents or guardians, and the child. For the child, it’s the loss of protection; for the parent it’s the loss of an instinctive, genetic role.
For the student, the sense of overwhelm is hopefully short-lived.
Kids make fast friends, and within a few weeks they’ll settle into a life that is surrounded by empty beer bottles, McDonalds’ wrappers and some of the best people they’ll ever meet, with only those pesky lectures to get in the way of what is ultimately likely to be the best three years of their lives.
But the parent keeps grieving, keeps missing, keeps worrying.
Yes, that grief fades and for most people it becomes the faithful old scar that becomes an increasingly gentle reminder of the painful day they waved goodbye to someone who had been a permanent fixture in their home.
But other parents find it harder to process the grief and loss, and this is, understandably, particularly – though far from exclusively – the case for the single parent of an only child, where the relationship is mutually supportive and sustaining.
Feeling loss and grief when your child flies the nest for the first time is nothing to be ashamed of, but if it persists to the point where it is adversely impacting on your day to day life and your happiness, then as with all things, support is the answer.
Hypnotherapy for grief and bereavement, and the anxiety that goes with them, can be great at helping you to cope with why you feel as you do, and to find more peace with, and even acceptance of, the absence of a child.
Often, a prolonged sense of loss in these circumstances can be traced back to an event you experienced in the past, it can trigger old wounds and it’s worth bearing in mind that any grief we experience in the present is a window for all other unresolved grief to come through.
This can be flooring as we are left to deal not only with the absence of a child but also other unresolved issues too – perhaps old abandonment wounds or other bereavement grief.
if you’ve got a child heading off to uni, and you’re feeling emotionally wobbly, it’s important to give yourself time to process, to get support and to be extra compassionate to yourself. This chapter is a big deal and it’s unrealistic to expect to be able to just crack on as normal.
Good things can come from this time because endings are also beginnings. It can be a period of opportunity to rediscover hobbies, spend more time with your partner, or to begin a new relationship if you’ve single-parented for years.
So, once you’ve processed the grief, use this time to set positive for a new positive and powerful, albeit different, chapter in your life.