If you ask Google to define empty nest syndrome you might receive a somewhat patronising example: "suffering badly from empty nest syndrome, she would wander around her little house tearfully sniffing one of her son's T-shirts."
Whilst I never quite reached that level of maudlin, the very real sadness affecting parents whose children have recently left home is something I can relate to. After my daughter left our family home for university the loneliness I felt in the aftermath was almost palpable.
After caring for a child for 18 years, the experience of sending them off into the world can be a painful one, resulting in an uneasy and sometimes unexpected transition period. Naturally, I was hugely proud of my daughter's achievements and shared her excitement at the prospect of a new chapter so I was surprised by how unhappy I felt in the weeks and months after she left.
What were previously typical and insignificant occurrences - an empty house or having dinner alone - took on sombre new meaning after her departure. I love my job and have an active social life but I mourned my identity as a parent and that quiet but almost constant feeling of being needed.
Of course, raising independent and confident children who can function without you is part of good parenting, with many parents viewing university or moving out as the next step in a natural process. Inevitably, some of those students will struggle with loneliness themselves although luckily help is out there via student unions and support groups. But what about those left behind?
The wider picture of loneliness in the UK was revealed in a study published by the British Red Cross and the Co-op, exposing epidemic levels of loneliness and social isolation. Over nine million adults of all ages reported always or often feeling lonely with life transitions like bereavement, children leaving home or separation all identified as key triggers. It found that the wider impacts can be as damaging to health as smoking and obesity and have been estimated to cost the NHS and other public services up to £12,000 per person over the next 15 years.
With these shocking figures revealing that almost a fifth of the entire population is feeling lonely why are we so afraid to talk about it? The stigma around loneliness continues, potentially making it even easier to ignore. The term carries such negative connotations that many of us are embarrassed to broach it. I was able to share my feelings with friends but still felt uncomfortable doing so, conscious that perhaps it made me sound weak or incapable. Many of us don't feel equipped to deal with these conversations, forcing us to look away from what is a very real and pressing issue.
Loneliness is a crisis with no one-size-fits-all solution but it doesn't have to be permanent. For me, volunteering was a route to begin conquering my feelings of helplessness. Proven as a successful way to make people happier, more confident and positive about the future, volunteering can be the simplest way to ease loneliness.
Creating new connections and meeting more people by giving just a few hours in my local community proved to be a positive way to meet my needs whilst also giving something back. Charities are always happy to receive help, especially if you choose an opportunity that matches your interests and skills but perhaps even more importantly, it provides us with an opportunity to look beyond our own circumstances and appreciate what other people might be going through.
Don't suffer in silence; support is out there. With some help, I was able to acknowledge my loneliness, look it in the eye and learn how to fill the quietness.
For more information on how the British Red Cross and Co-op are helping to tackle loneliness and for volunteering opportunities in your area visit the British Red Cross websiteSuggest a correction