Bill Merrington is a priest, counsellor and wood carver. MAXINE GORDON introduces The Press's new weekly wellbeing columnist

THERE'S a straightforward reason why Bill Merrington gave up a career as a forensic scientist to become a priest.

"I had a suspected brain tumour. The church prayed for me and it disappeared, so I went into the church. I wanted to help people."

Bill, who turns 64 this year, has been helping people ever since.

After becoming a priest he worked as a chaplain in a maternity hospital, comforting families who had lost their babies.

"There were a lot of premature babies, stillbirths and cot deaths. I dealt with scores of babies dying and I wanted to know what happened to their parents because I didn't know if they would ever recover."

That question set Bill off on a journey to try to find the answer. He travelled the UK, interviewing 100 bereaved families and turned his findings into a book, Suffering Love.

He then took up play therapy and worked in schools with children suffering from loss, whether through bereavement, or the separation and divorce of their parents.

Bill has written several more books on bereavement and coping with loss and more recently has been chaplain for a high-security prison where he has worked with lifers.

He runs his own counselling therapy business, seeing clients in the York area, where he lives.

He has set up the York Bereavement Service, offering private counselling to people struggling with loss which he defines as "not eating, not sleeping, not going to work.

"People can get stuck in a cul-de-sac with anger or guilt or not being able to progress with their lives. We have to find a way to accommodate our loss and take our loss with us in a way that allows our lives to continue, blossom and develop."

From this week, Bill will be writing a weekly wellbeing column for The Press.

He is an accomplished wood carver and an exhibition of his work will be on display at Worcester Cathedral from October 4.

As students head off to college, Bill's first column examines empty-nest syndrome

HAVING been a university chaplain for 11 years, it feels strange not to be getting ready for ‘freshers week’ and putting on events to support students who don’t necessarily want a week’s pub crawl.

Most students adapt well to leaving home and there are a range of support services for those who struggle, but what about the parents? I still recall my wife and I tearfully leaving our eldest daughter in her accommodation in a student block designed by an architect who specialised in prisons! It is one of the most heart breaking moments of my life. The good news is that my daughter survived and blossomed and my family and I readjusted to life at home.

Why is it so painful and such a physical ache? Well, it is a sign of love. From the moment of birth you have attached yourself to your child and responded to all their needs. You have given time, energy, finance and heartache encouraging your child to blossom and reach adulthood. We have gone from total control, to semi control, to thinking we are still in control of our child. But now the light dawns on us, that we don’t control them anymore. We give and give till we give them away into adulthood. But the change is a loss and naturally causes a grief reaction.

Now I won't pretend that there are no dangers when a young person leaves home. Most of my time as a chaplain was not dealing with religious issues but focusing on the concerns of students and taking phone calls from parents. The majority of students I never saw, as they were too busy having a good time. Yes, there were times when I thought, "thank goodness the parents don’t know.” In a community of 20,000 plus, life happens with its warts and all.

For some parents, the loss is too much. We call this the empty-nest syndrome. The cause is simple; you love your child and miss them. The signs might include crying, sadness, poor concentration, disrupted sleep pattern, increased drinking and even depression. It can create a loss of purpose and meaning in life. After all you have spent more than 18 years to work to this point. It should feel like a great achievement filled with joy, but somehow it creates a pain deep within. This is because your child has become so much apart of your identity. The future can seem bleak. It can also mean that the focus of attention in your relationship with your partner has been removed and reveal cracks in the relationship. You may find yourself becoming over controlling of the remaining siblings. There can be a challenge to one's identity as you move from being a parent with a child to a parent of an adult child.

So what can we do about it to ease the pain and adjustment?

First, be kind you yourself as it takes time to adjust. Secondly, recognise that this is an end of a chapter but also a beginning of a new venture. Acknowledge that you are still a parent; you are in stand-by mode in case you are needed. Next, be honest with your new child-adult, explain that it is a big change for yourself. Discuss new boundaries of expectations. How often do you want to speak by phone, text or Skype? Your expectations might be very different to your child's. I recall phoning my mother on a public phone for five minutes every week. It seemed a very long five minutes to me, but I was totally unaware of how my mother was feeling. So come to a mutual agreement of expectations so that you are not sitting at home worried all the time and your child doesn’t feel hassled by you. Can you find someone to share your feelings with at this time? Talking it out can ease the burden and help you get a balanced perspective.

Can you see this as a new opportunity for yourself with work, training, new hobbies? Tell yourself you have succeeded in producing a unique adult and deserve some ‘self’ time. And while you are trying new things, your child is learning and making their own mistakes in life, that only they can do. Parents are now like a distant lifeguard ready to react when needed. We don’t switch off from being parents, but need to learn to be in a ‘sleep-pause mode’ in case we are required.

If you continue to feel overwhelmed and the symptoms continue, you may need to see a therapist or GP to help you work through the issues.

Dr Bill Merrington is a therapist and a chartered psychologist working in the York district (