What Happens When COVID-19 Suddenly Fills the Empty Nest?
Grieving for thwarted possibilities helps us to live with what we have lost.
Posted Jun 08, 2020
From my perspective, one of the most significant developmental tasks for young adults is learning how to grieve—you cannot make the transition from adolescence to adulthood without grieving for the loss of your childhood. Grieving is a painful process, but it is also a liberating process—when we are able to mourn for the past, we are better able to live in the present and create a better future for ourselves.
When I am treating struggling young adults and their families, one of my main objectives is to help both generations to become more fluent in the language of grief.
Young adults have to recognize that time only moves in one direction and cannot be turned back. Childhood, no matter how pleasant or unpleasant it may have been, must come to an end. And the long-awaited and sought-after freedoms and privileges of adulthood do not arrive without a price but are accompanied by significant and inescapable duties and responsibilities.
Parents of young adults have to grieve as well, although they are dealing with a different kind of loss. Emptying the nest requires the recognition that we will never feel as necessary and valuable as we did when we were raising children. We are designed to reproduce and to take care of our young, so when our young get older and need us less, mothers and fathers are nudged towards the margins of irrelevance, into the twilight of insignificance. This entails considerable grief, as the long-standing investment in parenthood is wistfully relinquished in the service of new pursuits and endeavors.
But what happens when our travels across these crucial and complicated developmental meridians are affected by a global crisis? One of the great challenges of the COVID-19 pandemic is that those who were beginning to voyage towards independence and self-sufficiency have been suddenly wrenched out of the adult lives that they were beginning to create. College students were forced to swiftly depart from college campuses and return home. Countless young adults who had found work and were living independently lost their jobs due to the cratering economy and had no choice but to move back in with their parents.
Of course, this means that the parents of the young adults who had begun to pull anchor and set sail are upended, as well. Instead of trying to author the next chapter in their individual and marital lives without balancing themselves on the fulcrum of childrearing, they are once again in daily contact with their children for an indeterminate period of time—certainly months, if not longer.
So it comes as no surprise that many families are struggling as they are abruptly thrown back together into a form of captivity and confinement that none of them were anticipating. With this in mind, I will be posting a series of essays in the coming weeks that are designed to help parents and young adults to re-balance and re-position themselves while maintaining their sanity during the period of time that stay-at-home and/or remain-at-home guidance is in place.
As I noted above, the capacity to grieve for losses, on the part of both parent and young adult, is necessary to achieve a leave-taking that leaves each generation in a position to continue growing. So the best place to start is for families to understand that this is, indeed, a grief-stricken time, and to remember that grief requires us to travel across a broad and uneven landscape of complicated feelings, such as sorrow, anger, despair, and frustration.
Grieving for what we have lost doesn’t erase our pain, but it eases our pain and helps us to develop a different relationship with it, allowing pain to deepen us, to soften us, and to humanize us.
It is impossible to overestimate the impact that COVID-19 has had, and will continue to have, on all of our lives. But while we will not always be facing a global pandemic, we will always be encountering loss—life is a feast of losses. Learning how to mournfully and meaningfully maneuver our way through the (hopefully temporary) losses that have been set into motion by the novel coronavirus will not only help us through this particular crisis but also leave us better prepared for whatever crises we may encounter in the future.