Legatus members have learned to cope after their children have left the nest . . .
When children grow up and leave home, the emptiness left behind can be daunting.
The so-called Empty Nest Syndrome, though not a clinical diagnosis, is widely considered to be a phase in life that can bring intense grief for parents. It can also be a time of growth.
“You always have choices in life,” said Andrea Chisholm, a member of Legatus’ Toronto Chapter. “You have choices about your health, finances, whatever. This is especially true with the empty nest.”
Time to grow
Dr. Ray Guarendi, a clinical psychologist, author and Catholic radio host, noted that Empty Nest Syndrome seems to hit women the hardest, particularly those who were traditional stay-at- home moms.
“Now her vocation seems to be over,” he said. “Lots of this is intertwined with her worry as a mother. These moms feel they can no longer give their influence like before.”
However, an empty nest does not necessarily mean an empty life.
“We are physically, emotionally, spiritually and intellectually created, so we must address all of these components of our lives,” said Dr. Lisa Klewicki, a clinical psychologist with the Virginia-based Fountain of Life Ministries. “The empty nest phase is a beautiful opportunity to grow in all these areas. It should not be a time to think, ‘My whole purpose is gone.’”
Klewicki suggests that couples get more physical exercise after their children leave home.
“Get involved in team sports to work out and interact with others,” she said. “Eat right and take the time to cook and plan healthier meals. Now is your time to be creative. Take a cooking class. Buy a new grill.”
In terms of feeding the intellect, Klewicki suggests enrolling in classes. “And for the emotional part, build up your friendships and your social network,” she said.
Both Guarendi and Klewicki strongly recommend reconnecting with your spouse.
“Re-engage with your spouse,” Guarendi said. “Get to know each other again. Establish rituals. My wife and I have coffee together every morning. We have been married 30 years. Treat your spouse with more attention than you do your kids. If you have a reasonable basis for your marriage, your marriage should get better after the kids leave.”
Klewicki suggests that older couples establish weekly date nights.
“Sometimes I hear the complaint that, ‘My spouse isn’t the same person as when we got married.’ Well who is? Get to know each other in a new way,” she said. “Invest emotionally in each other. You can volunteer together. Give of your time and talent. It’s crucial for Catholics to look at the empty nest as a time to grow.”
For the spiritual life, Klewicki recommends going to Mass together and reading the same spiritual book, then discussing it.
“If your spouse is not as religious as you, meet them where they are and gradually bring them along,” she said. “The idea is, ‘I am so in love with Christ that I want you, the love of my life, to know Him as well. I don’t want to be alone in this.’ Pray for each other, pray for the relationship and make sacrifices for each other.”
Andrea Chisholm says that when she hit the empty nest phase, her husband Bob had to travel to Mexico City from Toronto three days a week. Not only was her house missing her two children, but for half the week, her husband as well.
“Women need something to do,” Andrea said. “They can volunteer or work. I began to teach piano part time. I spent a lot of time doing Church music, getting involved in the choir.”
However, work cannot be the only thing to fill the empty nest. For Andrea, the spiritual life became more important.
“It was my faith that got me through,” she said.
Andrea became an extraordinary Eucharistic minister and went to daily Mass. When her father had to move into a nursing home, she brought a priest to the home. She visited the sick once a week for 13 years and brought the Eucharist to them.
“God will always lead you in the direction He wants you to go,” she explained. “You have to learn to follow that gentle pulling. Besides the other activities, I felt pulled to work with FertilityCare Toronto, a Natural Family Planning organization associated with the Creighton Model. I have just recently joined the board.”
The rosary was another support for Andrea as she entered the empty nest phase.
“I really believe that God gives ideas during the rosary,” she said. “Little things pop into your mind. I once heard that Haydn used to get ideas for music during the rosary.”
Bob and Andrea Chisholm set up a charitable foundation after his retirement to help Catholic causes in Canada. Between their work, charities and spending time with their children and grandchildren, the empty nest is always there but the empty feelings have faded.
Faith and work
When Glory Sullivan’s youngest child moved out of the house, it hit the Jacksonville Legate hard.
“I thought I had died,” she said.
The Sullivans’ three children were married in a span of two-and-a- half years.
Although Glory and her husband Tom were working together in their own Maryland-based company at the time, they still felt the emptiness. But their faith, their marriage and their work got them through.
“Our theory was ‘work like crazy’ and ‘let’s build a house,’” she said. “We eventually decided to build a house in Ponte Vedra, Fla., in 1995. The idea was, ‘If we build this, they will come.’ And they come all the time. We absolutely adore it!”
Their three children and seven grandchildren visit their home in Florida throughout the year.
The Sullivans sold their company in 1998 and created a foundation with a focus on evangelization. “We still work,” Glory explained. “It’s important for empty nesters.”
One of their most recent projects is to bring chastity speaker Pam Stenzel to schools in the Washington, D.C., area and their diocese of St. Augustine, Fla.
As a couple, the Sullivans take their faith seriously.
“We have always gone to Mass every day in the morning,” said Glory.”We are overachievers. At 74 and 79, we make our own kids tired.”
Empty Nest Syndrome can cause sadness, but if Legatus members’ experience is any indication, drawing upon the spiritual life and exercising God-given talents can help couples get through … and even thrive.
“Another piece of advice,” said Glory, “is that when one of your children says, ‘I’m pregnant,’ you have a new vocation!”
SABRINA ARENA FERRISI is Legatus magazine’s senior staff writer.