Empty Nest During A Pandemic: Facing Your Fear and Grief in 2020

empty nest during a pandemic

If you’re a parent facing an “empty nest” this fall — your child or children are heading off to college or even life — you’re probably feeling a variety of emotions. Layered on top of the very real empty nest syndrome is also the “we’re still in a pandemic” panic. Plenty of empty nesting online resources and searches will yield results like “be sure and keep your calendar full! Stay busy to fill in the void!” But what if you’re unable to do that right now? How do you face an empty nest during a pandemic? How do you address both fears during this time?

I’m not a therapist, and I don’t even play one on TV. I am a mom, though, who has gone through one of my birds leaving the nest. That bird is going back to college in July, ahead of a starting-earlier-than-planned fall semester. Importantly, her college has laid out detailed plans to try and keep students safe, and coronavirus infections low. But it’s also in a large city in our state. The infection rate is much higher than here at home.

RELATED: Surprise Reaction to the Empty Nest

Also important, I’ve also gotten used to her being home since March. Even with her still-busy academic schedule and also working at her hometown job (so thankful for that opportunity), I was glad to know where she was. During the upheaval of shifting into quarantine, I admit that having my bird back home washed me in relief.

And now we’re approaching fall. I can’t say I’m excited for it, but it’s coming. I’m flipping two sides of a coin to deal with the anxiety surrounding her move, again.

New Empty Nesters

If you’re new to the “my kid is leaving me” game, welcome. It’s OK, we’re all here to help. There’s a few things to keep in mind during this transition, and some of it is actually about you.

It’s absolutely normal to feel sad about your student going away to college. As we collected things for her dorm room, I had intense flashbacks of shopping for her nursery. I couldn’t get why my brain was doing that to me! It hurt twice over, along with the joy of her next chapter. But it’s normal. It’s a transition for both of you. It speaks to the love you have for them to mourn their childhood. You aren’t needed in the same way, but you are still needed!

RELATED: Who Is Liable If Your Student Gets COVID-19 on Campus?

You’ve been using lots of language like “this is a new chapter” and “welcome to the rest of your life” as your child has graduated. That chapter beginning also applies to you! The roles and definitions are shifting a bit. It’s ok to feel jarred, relieved, scared, and grief.

Importantly, don’t rush the transition. You’ll go through lots of emotions. It’s good to see it for what it is. Talk to friends and family about it. Find the joy in the changes.

Quarantine Empty Nesters

Then there’s the other side of the coin: the fear of the pandemic and its specific unknowns. And unlike those of us who’ve been through the “standard” empty nesting, this one is decidedly different.

As states work through the process of reopening, testing, and communications surrounding safety, college students and their parents are left to process that information and make very personal decisions. Colleges and universities have been sending out plans for what will be done to keep students well. Everything from what the online coursework plan is now to how many hand sanitizing stations will be on campus are being decided.

How do you quell the anxiety of sending your college student off into a world with COVID-19 still floating around? The best balms I know of are trust and communication, with a lot of preparation.

Trust Your Student

You’ve more than likely done a lot of talking about safety in the last few months. Stress to them that they are responsible for their health and well-being. Make sure they have a good medicine drawer handy and know the steps the university has set out to report any symptoms.

They will more than likely get those messages A LOT at school anyway. We’re sending them to college to get an education, and I think this situation is definitely an education! Just make sure they have plenty of disinfectant wipes and masks along with power strips and XL twin sheets.


Yes, we always want to know our kids are safe. And hey, technology makes that really easy! Just text us back! It’s not hard! “Back in my day”… my parents called me once a week! I don’t think anyone has that communication plan any longer.

But “more is better” isn’t always true. Better communication is, actually, better. Make sure that your stress and fear doesn’t turn you into an “over communicator” with your student. Give them space when you can. Coming up with an acceptable plan of “checking in” might calm everyone. Refrain from sending news updates and COVID numbers. Your student is figuring out things on their own, and a chiming bell of doom isn’t what they need. Be supportive and positive. That’ll help you too.

And share with them your pride, mixed in with how much you miss them. Homesickness will hit in a very different way (again) this year, so expect that to be coming.

Above everything, remember that you’ve done a good job. They were ready to fly the nest anyway, pandemic or not. Facing an empty nest during a pandemic might be unplanned and unwanted, but you both got this.

Some other great “how to cope with the empty nest” articles:

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