Only one person in my house drank whole milk: my big brother. A day or two after we dropped him off at college, I remember Mom opening the fridge, seeing a half-drunk gallon of whole milk, and weeping.
I giggled. My fifteen-year-old mind did not understand Mom’s loss. Sure, my brother was gone, but I was busy growing and knew he’d be back at Thanksgiving.
Now I have kids. They are currently seven and nine, but I dread the day that they go off to make their own lives. Their current daily need for me decreases in some ways and increases in others, and there are days that I miss them already.
I know that it’s good and right for them to leave. I know I will always be their mother. I know that I will have new opportunities for good things when my house is more often empty of their laughter and tears than it is full. Still – today my heart rebels against their future absence.
We want to release our kids to journey bravely into the world, to become fully themselves in maturing into whomever God wants them to be. An Empty Nest Ritual helps us empower them to do just that. We also can process our own loss. Click To Tweet
All the Feels When Kids Leave
When our kids leave home, whether for a short time or for good, we experience a whole range of emotions. We are joyous in our new freedom and devastated by the quiet evenings. We put out fewer placemats at our meals, at first still cooking too much. We adjust our social schedule. We see something that reminds us of our kids’ absence and weep.
Like any end or beginning, this transition carries with it a myriad of emotions, including anxiety, grief, sadness, joy, and hope. In my new book, Meaning in the Moment: How Rituals Help us Move Through Joy, Pain, and Everything In Between, I write about characteristics of the ends, middles and beginnings of our lives.
I also write about how rituals help us transition well.
Weddings as a Traditional Ritual of Transition
Traditionally in Western culture, a child leaving home involved a wedding ritual. Many cultures continue to practice this: sons and daughters live with their parents until they marry. The wedding acts as a unique opportunity to celebrate the joys and losses of leaving singlehood and one’s family in order to embrace a new family. The simultaneous tears and laughter of a wedding ceremony display the conflicting emotions of this change.
And it’s not only the wedding ceremony. There are multiple other rituals that precede and follow the ceremony itself. All help both parents and their offspring in the transition.
Western culture has let go of the wedding as a ritual to help us mark our kids leaving home. And we have not replaced it. Parents speak about empty nests, but neither our churches nor our families have a worship ritual to help us process the losses and gains of this monumental transition.
Why a Ritual?
We are our bodies. And rituals are a unique way to act out the unity of the visible and invisible. In weddings, the bride walks down the aisle alone and returns with her husband, embodying the one-flesh unity we believe God accomplishes in the ritual. One-flesh unity is invisible, so we make it visible through bodily action. And we think the wedding ritual transforms.
Here are two core reasons why rituals are transformative across culture:
- Rituals are visible. Since the visible trumps all the other senses, rituals we can see stick with us. We can distinguish what has changed after a meaningful ritual has taken place.
- Rituals name. A wedding names a covenant of love, names the community that is important to the couple, and those now married receive new names: husband and wife.
Ritual psychology is replete with examples of how rituals help us alleviate anxiety and regulate emotions. Doing a ritual creates agency in times when we feel powerless.
Western culture has let go of the wedding as a ritual to mark our kids leaving home. Parents speak about empty nests, but neither our churches nor our families have a worship ritual to help us process this monumental transition. Click To Tweet
What an Empty Nest Ritual Needs
In Chapter 3 of my book, “How Rituals Help and Unite Us,” I include a ritual for “After An Important Person Leaves.”
It is a great one to use for marking the empty nest. In fact, I wish I did something like it when my kids started full-time public school. It’s not only for kids leaving, but also for a friend moving across the country. I remember a quote from a book I read years ago while I was living in Paraguay: “Leaving a friend is like a death; it calls for grieving.” I wish I knew who wrote it because my life experience has proved its truth.
Here are three things that an Empty Nest Ritual requires:
- An Empty Nest Ritual requires community. Enacted with friends, it invites others into the joy and grief so they can journey with us well in our new family season.
- An Empty Nest Ritual requires thoughtful reflection. There are benefits of the relationship with our children that continue in spite of their newfound distance apart from us, and those that are lost due to the distance. Spending time distinguishing the two will be critical for your family to enter into a new season.
- An Empty Nest Ritual requires symbols. Things like a treasured family photo of all of us together, and candles to symbolize the light of the life of the person(s) who left help us remember the benefits that continue, and those that are lost.
Here is a summary of progression of the ritual:
- After prayer, a friend lights one wick of a large, three-wick candle, stating that it symbolizes the light of the person who left.
- Parents light smaller votives while naming the benefits that continue, and then light tealights while naming those that are lost.
- When ready to let go, parents blow out the tealights declaring, “I will miss what we no longer share.”
- With one final tealight, parents light the other two wicks of the large candle and name their hopes of the light of their children to grow in new ways.
- A friend blesses the parents, and they keep the photo and large candle in a special place, lighting it whenever they feel the losses and joys of an empty nest.
We want to release our kids to journey bravely into the world, to become fully themselves in maturing into whomever God wants them to be. An Empty Nest Ritual helps us empower them to do just that. It also helps us process the myriad of emotions parents experience as their beloved children leave the safety of the family nest.
Rev. Dr. Amy Davis Abdallah works as a professor of practical theology and worship, a writer, speaker, and ritual creator. She loves all expressions of beauty, mentors many, adventures in cities and on trails, and is a wife and the mama of two boys. Amy is founder and director of Woman: A Rite of Passage program. She authored The Book of Womanhood to empower women to be their true selves in the world. Meaning in the Moment: How Rituals Help Us Move Through Joy, Pain, and Everything in Between, her latest book, released in September 2023.