Arshad Zaheer with his daughter
Arshad Zaheer with his daughter, Miha Zaheer. Image Credit: Supplied

The pandemic’s travel plans have affected the world’s. It’s meant children ready to head out into adult waters – studying abroad, living by themselves, taking care of the nitty-gritty – have found themselves with a ticket with nowhere to go. For parents, this has delayed the inevitable, too – a home deprived of its youngest members for some time to come. UAE-based parent Arshad Zaheer’s daughter, who studied abroad for a while before heading home to wait out COVID-19, is gearing up for a university return. For Zaheer, the move is bittersweet, for he’s now going to have to re-face his feelings of loss. Here, he writes about his pride – tinged with sadness – on being a ‘two-time empty nester’:

In 2020, COVID-19 was declared a pandemic and university students’ lives were turned upside down. The shift to online learning was a challenge for many; some had to make the difficult decision of whether to stay at their university or travel home to their families.


All students in every phase of their university life faced various challenges. The freshman students who couldn’t go and experience their new world; the sophomores who were just about getting familiar with campus life and their budding friendships. My heart particularly goes out to the seniors who graduated during the pandemic. All their student life they had dreamt of this day, the celebration with family, friends and faculty, proudly donning their graduation cloaks and tossing their hats as they held their prized degrees; the tears of joy for their achievements and the sorrow of parting with their friends. And of course, there were the students who faced mental health issues, coping with online classes, no social interactions, their laptops being their only window to their university.

As parents of a sophomore student of UBC – Vancouver, whose home is Dubai, we have seen the time zone challenges take a toll on her this past year; she would be up all night for her classes and on many occasions, her tests and exams were at odd hours of the night or just before dawn.

While all my sympathies lie with these students building their lives and careers, enduring the pandemic, I would also like to reflect on empty nesters. When our only child left for her boarding school to do her IB at MUWCI (Mahindra United World Colleges India), the Empty Nest syndrome was one of the worst to experience. Feelings of loss, sadness and grief were emotions we were battling for days before she was leaving. And once she left, the emotions engulfed us - loneliness, fear, anxiety only adding to the sorrow. Of course we coped and emerged stronger knowing that she is happy and coping well. When she came home and left again after her short breaks or summer vacations, it wasn’t ever easy, but we coped. Eventually, when she left to do her undergrad at UBC – Vancouver, while the goodbye was definitely not easy, we were surprised with the absence of the trauma of her leaving us for the first time.

Then the pandemic hit in 2020 and many students rushed home from their universities and colleges before travel became impossible. Most universities implemented distance learning and most overseas students had to do their entire academic year online. Much as we felt our daughter was missing out on in-person classes and her university life, we welcomed it as bonus time we could spend with her. She was safe and home for a good 17 months and we felt whole as a family again. The energy at home was buoyant. Festivals, birthdays and anniversaries became bigger celebrations. Weekends flew by with staycations and fun things to do. This, for us, was the new normal.

While we kept ourselves aware that she has to go back, we never realised that with her being home for more than a year when she goes, we would become empty nesters all over again! Unlike happiness and joy, sorrow and grief are not emotions we humans can get used to. Dealing with a feeling of loss, sadness, grief or coping with loneliness, anxiety and fear is not something we want to ever experience again. But we will endure this, too; for the sake of our child, we will proudly wear the title of 'Two-Time Empty Nesters' selflessly. Like us there are thousands of parents who too would have been awarded with this title by this pandemic. And like us, they too will wear it proudly.

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