It’s a cliché that at mid-life, we are “reinventing” ourselves. For those with children, it’s an easy cliché to understand because our parental role changes so dramatically as our children grow up. We were accustomed to being needed on an everyday basis, but teens and adult children no longer need us in the same way. This change in our relationship to our kids naturally requires some reinvention of other aspects of our lives.
Many different transitions typically happen during the years from about 45 to 55; our situation depends on where we’ve come from, whether we are male or female, our social and financial resources, and a good amount of luck. We might be awarded a promotion at the pinnacle of our working life, or we might find ourselves unwillingly unemployed. We might meet up with an old flame, divorce and re-marry, recommit to our partnership, decide to be celibate, or finally meet the love of our lives. We might be forced to relocate or happily decide to downsize.
At around this age, many of us notice our physical aging. For the first time, we may be diagnosed with a chronic illness such as arthritis or hypertension, or at least we begin to endure a series of small nudges from tennis elbows, carpal tunnels, acid refluxes, root canals, and bunions. We have to wear reading glasses, visit the podiatrist, take medications, and skip dessert. And most of us find we have close friends and relatives with serious illness, or, even sadder, that we have more funerals to attend.
Each of us has our own personal ways we know we are aging and we feel the small and sometimes large losses this entails every day.
“Reinvention” sounds fabulous and exciting, suggesting new possibilities and opportunities, a “new you.” But sometimes we just feel sad, disoriented, and overwhelmed by trying to look forward when we feel weighed down and tugged back. What I am finding in my own life and those of friends and others who have shared their stories with me is this: Sometimes the reinvention must be accompanied by mourning, a natural response to the losses that come during life transitions.
For some of us, a period of depression sets in following difficult losses or transitions. We know we are depressed when things just don’t seem to matter much anymore, when we feel bone tired and sleep doesn’t help much, when we feel hopeless, helpless, or useless. This is not something we should try to manage alone; we need to see a mental health professional or our physician, and seek support.
Most of us are not depressed, but we do feel the bittersweet nature of growing older. And making our way towards reinvention is best done along two pathways simultaneously or in shifting succession. In bereavement research, the term for this is “dual process” coping (Bennet et al, 2010; Richardson, 2010; Stroebe & Shut, 1999). One path in the process is mourning the losses actively, feeling the sadness and longing, wistfully thinking about how things used to be and no longer are; in other words, grieving. The other path involves “restoration:” creating a new normal, engaging in activities, making plans, the reinvention of life after loss. The bereaved person fluidly shifts from one path to the other.
I am not suggesting that aging is the equivalent to bereavement, but this dual process coping seems to me to be the way of midlife. We are surrounded by reminders of what has passed and what we have lost: our younger bodies and the younger version of all of our loved ones: parents, children, siblings, friends; our former jobs and former houses; the choices we made to follow this or that career, or geographic location, or romantic interest. So we find ourselves mourning in private moments, while falling asleep or daydreaming, cleaning out our mothers’ closets or our kids’ decades-old craft supplies, steeped in wistful nostalgia.
Yet, we know that the future could still be a long one…
…and we hope that we will have good health. Midlife is a time to reevaluate our health practices, to try to do what we can to feel good and stave off frailty and disability in later life.
…and we hope our lives will be meaningful and that we will have purpose. Midlife is a time to think about our strengths and talents and how we can make the best use of both to please ourselves and serve others.
…and we also know that in the final analysis, life is surprisingly short as well as long. Midlife is a time to dust off our hopes and dreams, our bucket lists, to see where we stand.
We reflect on the past and mourn what we can no longer have or be, but we see reinvention in the possibilities ahead.
Bennett K.M., Gibbons K. & Mackenzie-Smith S. (2010). Loss and restoration in later life: an examination of dual process model of coping with bereavement. Omega (Westport), 61(4), 315-32.
Richardson, V.E. (2010). The dual process model of coping with bereavement: a decade later. Omega (Westport), 61(4), 269-71.
Stroebe, M. & Schut, H. (1999). The dual process model of coping with bereavement: rationale and description. Death Studies, 23(3), 197-224