Heartache from my Empty Nest

My heart has been working overtime and I want to share the harvest with you.

It started on Sunday when I sent a vulnerable, open-hearted email to my longtime community of friends, to honor and announce the ending of our 20 year tradition of monthly potlucks and council circles that began in our home in 1998.

I used my favorite coaching tool – Empathic Communication/ Nonviolent Communication – to organize and write my letter. So I did what I coach others to do (yay!) –

  • I gave myself time to feel my feelings – gratitude, sadness, nostalgia, wonder, and confusion.
  • Then I followed the painful feelings to learn what core needs were not being met.
  • Then followed the pleasurable ones to see the core needs that have been beautifully met for me by my community of friends.

My letter “wrote itself” clearly, easily and in a very heartfelt way that inspired beautiful, caring heartfelt responses from my friends. I celebrate the ease and meaningful connections!

I may dive deeper into my social and spiritual lessons from that another time. Today I’d like to share my empty nest heartache.

On Tuesday I was taken by surprise by the depth of my sadness when my daughter Claire, 21, cleared out the last things in her room and moved out of our home.  She had moved out before for a year when she was 18, and I thought I was done processing my grief back then. Plus I’ve known this was coming for a month and she only moved 20 minutes away! My mind just didn’t get it.

Nonetheless I was committed to following my heart, not my mind, in my grieving process. To feel my feelings, to not trying to ignore or distract myself from my sadness. I pulled back from work a bit to give it time to express. I noticed some things.

It’s About the Physical

The feelings hit hardest when the physical experience was upon me. I knew a month ago she was moving out, but didn’t cry at the news.

 The biggest triggers were quite physical, like seeing her emptied bathroom shelf, or walking by her empty room – bringing me waves of sadness and many tears.

Like sitting down to my dinner, remembering the “last lunch” with her outside, earlier that day. How before we began, as is her practice, she looked skyward and opened her arms in a graceful gesture of gratitude and said a blessing. I love her commitment to her spiritual practices. They are so regular, true, generous and sweet. I love her so much. More waves of sadness and tears.

Hand. Flower. Basket. Death.

I first learned about the direct, intense connection of my heart to my physical experience when I attended my cousin’s public memorial in 2000. Coleen and her fiance were victims of the Alaskan Airlines flight 261 that crashed into the Pacific ocean near Port Hueneme, California, on their way back from a family vacation in Mexico.

My family and I attended the large public memorial held at Pepperdine University in Malibu, for all 88 people who lost their lives. As we entered we were each handed a long-stemmed flower.

We filed past a long altar with photos, prayers, flowers and family messages for all of the people on board. We heard poignant and courageous expressions of grief and loss from officials and from family members.  

But, it wasn’t until we were all leaving the building, as my hand was releasing my white flower into the large basket that would be flown that day to the crash location and dropped into the ocean where my cousin died, that the dam broke and I burst into tears. Hand. Flower. Basket. Plane. Ocean. Coleen’s Death. All connected in a heartbreaking moment. It still brings tears to me as I write this 18 years later.

Unique Liveliness and a Vibrant Heart-led Lifestyle

Back to my heartache for Claire. Claire brings a unique liveliness, warmth and sense of fun to our home that simply can’t be replaced. Plus some really great meals and homemade raw vegan chocolate that are crazy good.

She models a vibrant heart-led lifestyle – daily. Although our political and economic structure don’t support this, she is not chasing credentials, money or status. Instead she is tuning in daily to her community building, healing and artistic talents and passions – visual, dance, musical, performance, poetry – and following her inner spiritual guidance to allow her life to unfold in alignment with her heart, soul, intuition and core values.

She shows me where and when she sees that I might not doing that, and how I might want to adjust.

One of my crying spells, shared with my patient and compassionate husband Crisman one evening, shined light on the fact that Claire is one of the few people I know that has made time on her calendar to get together to spend frequent quality time with people. She genuinely wants to be with me and it is not a hassle for her to make it happen. With her I feel seen and wanted in an unusually fulfilling, heart nourishing way.

She beautifully meets my core needs for love, fun, surprise, unique understanding, personal and spiritual growth, spaciousness, guidance, sweet and cheerful feminine companionship, and many more.

I got to speak all this to Claire in person this morning when she dropped by after her gym workout to share a quick breakfast.

It was not just heartwarming for her to hear. It was healing for the young, still tender part of her that has suffered from the unusual harmony and alignment I have always had with her older sister, that she often translated as “less mother love” for herself.

I’m not trying to paint Claire and our mother-daughter relationship as perfect, because we also have our struggles. But my heart was not focusing on our shadow areas this week. It was beating to the rhythm of our unique, precious, nourishing love and interconnectedness.

Common Empathy Mistake to Avoid.

During one of my crying episodes this week my well meaning housemate offered me consolation, which I appreciated because she had caring intention and I needed and wanted connection.

But in my moments of sadness she partly missed the mark for me because she made a common mistake. She jumped into reasons and solutions – like I deserve to feel sad, since I was losing my daughter, but that it will be even more fun now when we do see each other, and other attempts to comfort me.

That was a good affirmation for me of the importance of the empathy work I do and the subtleties that can make a huge difference.

She missed the empathy piece of acceptance and spaciousness, allowing my feelings – giving my sadness time and space to just be. Like many of us, she wanted to rush by that part.

She also missed a lot of “what was alive in me”, which she could have accessed by tuning into my possible unmet needs, or in this case my imagined unmet needs in the future, that were triggering my sadness. Needs like those that I found later for myself, as I mentioned above, that Claire meets for me – love, fun, surprise, spiritual growth, sweet and cheerful feminine companionship, etc.

When I’m sad it is just nice to know I am cared about and perhaps understood. The ultimate, more precise understanding is for someone to see the unmet core needs behind my tears.

My housemate  jumped into solutions mode too early  – something most of us do until we are trained out of it.

My reward for allowing myself all this emotional processing time in my busy busy week? Like clouds in the sky, the heavy sadness dissipated. Now I walk by her old room and I feel fine or don’t even notice. My heart has delivered its messages, I heard and felt them, and the sky is blue again.

Thank you for sharing my heart’s harvest!

Peace and many blessings,

Catherine

P.S. If you or a friend are struggling in an important workplace or family relationship, and you want to shed common disconnecting habits, and bring in safe, soulful heart connection, to meet your core needs with way more ease and grace, please connect with me here for a complimentary Breakthrough Conversation.

About the Author Catherine

Catherine Cooley is a mediator and a communication coach. She has worked in environments of extreme conflict including prisons, the court system and local communities teaching what she calls "Breakthrough Conversations." She specializes in helping people foster clear, respectful, warm, cooperative relationships at home and in the workplace.

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