As promised, here is the first book I can recommend for parents struggling with an empty nest. When Your Kid Goes to College: A Parents Survival Guide (1998), by Carol Barkin is a "support group with a binding" for parents preparing to let their kids go off to college. It is supportive, reassuring, and practical. Every family is different of course, so there is no "how to" manual, but this book is a great start - providing both the parent and student perspectives on celebrations and rituals, packing, emotional ups and down, relationships, and even many great suggestions for how to share the process in divorced families.
For those of you readers whose children have gone off to college, sit back and gloat that you survived, for those of you approaching the college years, this is a wake-up call - start preparing your children to be independent now - do not delay!
Ms. Barkin describes the months before the student leaves for college as intense. For the student, there is major emotional upheaval. Underneath the excitement of graduating from high school, and starting college are fears about whether or not they selected the right school, will make friends, and know what they need to survive in college. The more reflective students may also be a little sad that their childhood is drawing to an end and the security of home can no longer be taken for granted.
Parents, too have spent months worrying about issues as diverse as whether their child is as good as others and if the school they are attending will nurture their brilliance, and whether the co-ed showers will be an issue. Really obsessive parents buy a years worth of shampoo, remind their kids to eat five fruits and vegetables a day, and start home economics classes to teach "the basics" of getting up without a wake-up from a parent, cleaning, maintaining the car, banking, accessing medical care, and doing laundry. Every parent has worked so hard to get their kid to college, and is proud, but with every other breath, the same parent may just want to keep them in a strangle hold.
Every family says goodbye differently, whether it is at an airport, a new campus, or even on the phone, and then there is the emptier nest. Whether you have other children, or not, there is an empty spot in the car, at the table, in family debates, or even jokes - you will miss your child. This is normal. You can write cards and letters, leave voice messages, send emails, but try and let your child dictate how much contact there is - s/he is also trying to get used to the new life. Telling him or her that you miss them terribly is a burden they do not need - they cannot fix it - that is your job.
According to this book, most parents say "start filling the holes." Start a new project, make travel plans for seeing your child, take a weekend getaway, talk to other parents whose children also have just left, spend extra time with the children at home, join a new organization, start a home project, make new friends, but whatever you do, find something positive to think about, not just the child you are missing.
If you are used to knowing where your child was during the day, what the classrooms or work place looked like, it can be very disconcerting for you not to know what your child is doing, when, or where. Try not to focus on what you do not know, and plan a trip to visit your child so you can see what his or her dorm room is like, where the classes are, where they eat, etc... so there is less anxiety on your part.
One very important warning in this book is about the first time you visit your child at school. Be prepared for some awkwardness and for him or her not to need to spend every minute with you - they are not used to spending 24 hours a day with you and may have a life! Please do not be critical of their space, lifestyle, friends, or choice - be supportive of the life they are building. Be prepared to be shown around, and then left alone at times - this is a good thing - it means they are adjusting! Try not to be hurt or annoyed - it is what it is!
Obviously there is more in this book than I can share in this review, so I encourage you to read it for tips about preparing for the transition, what to do if things do not go well, and living through the first year. As with any transition in life - you are not alone - reach out, talk about how it feels to have your kid leaving for or at college, and forgive yourself for wishing s/he was still at home instead of grown up - this is all good!