When Grief Triggered by Empty Nest Syndrome Develops Into Major Depression

Many women experience the sadness and loss known as empty nest syndrome when their child leaves the family home for college or a career. This is normal, but with time it should lessen and become less severe. Parents typically adjust and begin to enjoy their new stage of life. In some cases, though, parents may not recover from the loss and may develop major depression. This is a serious mental illness that must be diagnosed and treated by professionals.

Empty nest syndrome is not a mental health diagnosis officially, but it is a real situation that many parents face.

It’s natural to have mixed emotions when your last child leaves home. Some parents feel a sense of freedom, but nearly all experience some degree of grief and loss.

If you don’t cope with those negative feelings in healthy and productive ways, there is a chance they can develop into an actual diagnosis of major depression.

If that happens to you or your spouse, help is available and you can find ways to live well with an empty nest.

What Is Empty Nest Syndrome? And What’s Normal?

While empty nest syndrome may not be a clinical diagnosis, it is a reality for parents of adult children. It is the feeling of sadness, grief, loss, and loneliness when children move out of the home. The feelings can begin even when just one child leaves and there is still one or more at home. Usually the empty nest sadness is worst when the last child is gone.

It is perfectly normal to have these feelings. There are several reasons you may feel down when your children leave home:

  • Your home naturally becomes quieter and emptier, which can feel lonely.
  • You may feel lost and as if you have no purpose anymore.
  • If the strongest part of your identity has been as a parent, this can feel like a loss of part of yourself.
  • Adult children moving out and getting on with the rest of their lives is a reminder of your own stage of life, which can be scary and sad.
  • You may worry about your child’s safety or ability to succeed at college or in careers.
  • And, of course, you love your children and simply miss seeing them every day.

All of these feelings are normal, as is feeling sad and depressed for a period of time. However, it is also normal for those feelings to begin to lessen and to adapt to a new lifestyle without kids in the home.

Empty Nest Syndrome and Depression – When Typical Sadness Gets Worse


Being sad about an empty nest may be normal, but major depression is an actual mental illness with serious consequences. It requires treatment and management by professionals. All parents dealing with an empty nest should be aware of depression—what it is, what it feels like, and what to do about it.

Research suggests that clinical or major depression as a reaction to an empty nest is not typical. If you struggle to get over the feelings of sadness, or if you have worrying symptoms of depression, it’s important to consider seeking an evaluation and diagnosis from a mental health professional. The signs and symptoms of major depression you should watch out for in yourself and your spouse include:

  • A persistent depressed mood that lasts for at least two weeks
  • Loss of interest in normal activities and things you usually enjoy
  • A fatigue deeper than typical tiredness
  • Eating too much or not enough, and either gaining or losing weight
  • New insomnia or oversleeping
  • Feelings of worthlessness, guilt, or shame
  • Difficulty thinking, concentrating, or focusing on even easy tasks to completion
  • Thoughts of death or suicide

What to Do About Major Depression


If you have any concerns at all about depression in yourself or your spouse, it is essential that you seek professional help. Start with your primary doctor if you aren’t sure where to turn. He or she can recommend a therapist or psychiatrist to make a diagnosis and to give treatment options.

It is so important to address this issue. It can be confusing at this time of life and difficult to understand if your grief is normal or if you are really struggling with major depression. A mental health professional is equipped to tell the difference.

Untreated depression can lead to all kinds of complications. These may include damaged relationships, even divorce, weight gain, social isolation, substance abuse, anxiety disorders, and even suicidal thoughts or attempts.

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Getting Treatment for Depression


If you do get a diagnosis of major depression, you have options and a reason for hope. Depression is a chronic mental illness, but most people respond very well to treatment. The right care can help you manage your symptoms, and over time learn to adjust to this new stage of life.

Options for treatment include medication, outpatient therapy, and residential care. Medication can be helpful, but it should not be used alone. You also need therapy to learn the important strategies that will help you cope in healthy ways and learn to enjoy life as an empty nester.

Residential treatment may be a good choice if you are really struggling and if weekly therapy just isn’t helping enough. A residential facility can provide you with around-the-clock care, a safe environment, and a full staff of experts to provide a treatment plan tailored to your unique needs and strengths.

Coping With Empty Nest Depression – Living a Happy, Fulfilling Life


Regardless of what type of treatment you choose, you can benefit from learning how to manage depression and enjoy your life with an empty nest. Here are some tips to help you adjust and move forward:

  • Focus on positive changes. Many parents feel conflicted at this time of life, because they miss their children, but also feel a sense of freedom. To feel better about your empty nest, focus on what’s good about your situation. For instance, you now have more time to pursue new interests, like training to run a race or learning to paint.
  • Focus on your relationship. If you have a spouse or partner, another area of positivity to focus on is your relationship. Spend your new-found free time developing a healthier, stronger relationship. Do activities together and have more date nights.
  • Develop new relationships with your children. As you get to know your kids as adults, you’ll find that you have something to celebrate. The relationship between a parent and adult child can be so rewarding. Get to know each other better, spend time doing things that friends do together, and enjoy the adult your child is growing into.
  • Connect with friends. Being a parent is time-consuming. Now is a great time to re-connect with friends. Social support is a great way to combat depression, so make plans and get to know new friends and reestablish old friendships. Chances are, those friends will be happy you reached out and are going through similar challenges.
  • Work on self-development. Relationships with others are so important at this time, but so too is your relationship with yourself. Now is a great time to focus on you. Go to therapy if necessary; learn a new skill; go back to school; devote more time to work and your career; do something creative. Whatever you can do to work on you is going to be a positive way to combat depression and take the focus away from your loss.

Empty nest syndrome represents a big and challenging life change. Any major life change can lead to depression, so be aware of your feelings and behaviors during this time. Don’t be afraid to ask for help, and if you do get a diagnosis of depression, don’t let it beat you. Help is available, treatment is effective, and life can be enjoyable and meaningful in the wake of an empty nest.

Helix Treatment Center’s clinically sophisticated trauma-based treatment for women was founded on the philosophy that a supportive, gender-specific therapeutic program is the best way to help women recover from psychological distress. We offer a tranquil space to restore emotional and behavioral health in a safe, intimate environment at our six-bed residence nestled in the beautiful Mt. Helix area of San Diego.

Contact us to learn more about our program and how we can help you or your loved one start on the path to lasting wellness.