Summer Camp, Empty Nest and SUD, the practice of letting go By Annie Highwater

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“Summer Camp, Empty Nest and SUD, the practice of letting go”



“All of a sudden the nest is empty.  The birds have gone, and what had been a constant blur of activity is now nothing more than a few discarded feathers.  Silence mutes all that was colorful and it is time to reestablish our significant place in an ever changing world.”  ~Marci Seither

All parents know the day will come when the kids will leave home and go off into life.  It can be a strange, sinking time for any Mom and Dad.  But when the launch happens abruptly and includes upsetting circumstances, it adds an extra amount of worry to the loneliness and longing you may feel for years gone by.

Huge, abrupt change is a process to work through, one day at a time.  Sometimes one breath at a time.  There were days I moved through it moment by moment.

I myself was not prepared for the hole my life would have once my son no longer lived with me.  It was so engulfing at times that I felt the sadness would never lift.  I had a difficult time seeing a baseball field, being around athletes and hearing things like kids laughing and playing, or cleats on pavement.  I felt so sad, strange and empty in those moments.   Walking through a grocery store and hearing someone yell “Mom!” sent a shock wave through me, filling my eyes with unexpected tears.

I know lots of parents who have had a son or daughter leave the home to go off to college, get married or head off into a life of recovery after the tornado of SUD (Substance Use Disorder) has ripped through their lives.  Believe it or not, that is becoming just as common.

Whatever prompts the changes, for a while we are left with a gaping hole of emptiness and a noticeably barren schedule.

Empty nest happens, and really, it’s supposed to. When it happens out of change that involved turmoil, it’s not the normal “next steps of life,” yet it can still lead to good things and a great next phase of life for a family.

Knowing that the emptiness does pass and life will become joyful and new again (if we work with it) helps move us through toward meaningful days again.


“To raise a child who is comfortable enough to leave you, means you’ve done your job.  They are not ours to keep, but to teach to soar on their own.” ~Unknown

When my son was little, we went to a summer camp together every year, I volunteered as an adult leader so he would have the presence of a parent with him.  It was something we looked forward to every summer.

One summer, feeling confident and independent at around age 11 or 12 (and knowing many of the regular campers), he asked if he could go to summer camp by himself.


Similar to experiences detailed in early chapters of my book “Unhooked”, this was one of the times I realized my son was growing up, branching off and wanting independence.

My heart initially felt the sting of rejection.  Then my mind seemed to shift gears into my usual fear based thought patterns.  Worries of all that could go wrong and that it would take over an hour for me to get to him if he needed me swirled through my mind.

Swallowing the negative thoughts, I told him I supposed he was old enough and probably ready, like the majority of his fellow campers, to go without his Mom.  So I gave him my permission.  He was more thrilled than I would have liked.

Once plans were made for my absence from camp, day after day I walked around feeling heavy-hearted and sullen. Somberly going to work, brooding and mourning, silently dreading the day I would drive my son to camp and leave him there; alone.

Obviously I believed he would only survive in my care!

At that time I worked for a man who counseled families. One afternoon, my boss asked why I seemed so moody and discouraged lately.  I explained my worrisome circumstances.

Always kind yet wise, his response was;

“Oh no, don’t do that.  Don’t impede him with your emotions, that will hinder him.  Don’t put that on him.  Your son is confident and independent, isn’t that what you’ve told me is your goal for him?  Don’t be the type who hinges your emotional weight on your child.  Mourning over missing him is not proof that you have a great relationship!  That’s about you, it’s selfish really.  He knows you are going to miss him; he knows you love him.  But if you hang the weight of this sad, pitiful display on his shoulders, making sure he knows Mom is going to cry her eyes out while he’s gone and then expect him to walk into that camp carrying your issues and enjoy himself, go swimming, fishing, do campy things and have fun while weighed down by that, you are doing him a grave disservice.  Let him experience this without all that.  Tell him you’ll miss him but you can’t wait to hear all about it afterwards!  He knows how to reach you if he needs to.  Let him know; Mom and home will be waiting for him to get back.  Tell him Mom may go do some fun things herself that week!   Tell him he’s brave!  And then…let him go.”

That advice was a wake-up call that I never forgot, how right it was!  All of it.  I had been making it about me.  And about fear.  But mostly, about me.

I didn’t need to hang my sadness, worries or issues on him, how unfair that would be.  Just like I intentionally never put on a long face when he went for weekends with his Dad, or spent a vacation away from me, how could I possibly make this about me and then send him off to cope with my weight on his back?

Thankful for the enlightenment, I spent the next few days with my son shopping for camping supplies, recalling great memories from previous summers there and preparing him for the new ones he’d make.

I also told him over and over how proud I was of him for wanting to go off on his own like this; what courage!  With that, I gave him the emotional freedom to go without my needs and worries strangling him.

He called home twice that week, once was to tell me he caught a huge fish and once after he got stung by a bee. He was proud of himself for having survived the pain of it and couldn’t wait to show me the mark it left.

GASP!!  He didn’t call me when it happened!

Instead of feeling rejected by that, I felt relieved that he was brave enough to stay and deal.

My son was learning to live and survive without me.  He needed to. That was not a threat to our relationship, it was a coping skill he’d need for the rest of his life.


Years later, when my son moved states away to enter recovery and then begin a life for himself thereafter, I often thought back to that summer camp advice from my wise boss.  In my rough moments, instead of calling and sounding like a blubbering, mournful “poor Mom” kind of mess, I would truthfully tell him about my grief and nostalgia, my fears, and worries.

And then I’d speak of my great confidence in him and how insanely proud I am of the man he has grown into.

I am thankful to know that I don’t need to make anyone responsible for how I feel.  It’s not my son’s burden to make sure I don’t feel lonely or get swept up in nostalgia. It’s up to me to regulate my emotions and keep them in check.  He has his own life to focus on.

My son knows I miss him and he knows he’s loved.  And he is strong enough to face life with the knowledge of my love for him as a launch pad, not a liability.

The best thing we can do for our kids is to be as strong, healthy and well as possible.

I believe much of life is about letting go.  My son and I enjoy the time we have together; to the very fullest!  Even still, my job is to encourage his strength and independence.  Which allows him to build momentum on his own as an adult.  And that ensures he can cope without me.

Our paths are intertwined forever. They separate, wind back around and return adjacent to one another, that’s the ebb and flow of life. Our relationship isn’t threatened by that.  As different as our lives are now, they’re wonderful and full.  We have days filled with ups and downs, joy and sorrow, there are great and terrible moments as well as lots of routine and mundane.  We share our lives as often as we speak, but we are not dependent upon one another.  What comfort and freedom that gives our relationship.


There are many wonderful tools and resources available that help ease the transition of empty nest, life change and grief.  Tools that help us rebuild so that life is not only manageable, but joyful.

I found personal strength on the toughest of days in therapy, recovery work, a few trustworthy friends, relevant books and found new projects to fill the empty moments.

It’s a new life for sure.  But the old one was due to fade anyway.

It takes time, it’s a process, and it’s okay to be gentle with yourself.

“Nothing is permanent, make peace with this.” ~Unknown

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