I want my inches back! At my yearly physical, I started arguing with the medical assistant measuring me, “I’ve always been taller than that.” She chose to believe the data staring at us: an inch and a half of me had gone missing. Without permission.
Losing height is only one of the many losses we may encounter in midlife and beyond. In a brief, unscientific survey of friends over 50, I learned how cumulative small losses have changed their lives.
Not all of the losses are heart-wrenching or tragic, such as a catastrophic accident or the death of a beloved. Some slip in slowly, like a knee that aches for a while before announcing one day that it is no longer going up mountains.
Many of the losses are body-related. I’m not the only one who wants the lost inches back or the extra pounds gone. Friends have lost teeth, energy, waistlines, and seen their vision or hearing diminish. One lost the ability to eat anything without gaining weight. I lost my beautiful, straight teeth. Every evening I stare at the mirror and wonder what caused my orthodontically engineered teeth to mutiny.
We lose stuff, such as jackets, gloves, and glasses. I’ve become a connoisseur of cheap drugstore readers while I search for the prescription glasses that have gone into hiding.
Some losses set the stage for how we live. Our height shrinks, and we need help lifting plates to the top shelf. One friend lost her ability to live independently when her physical strength and mobility declined.
Many losses are intangible. One friend reports a loss of innocence, while another “lost confidence that I could do whatever I wanted to.” One lost her youthful feeling of invincibility and immortality, while another lost the freedom to choose how she spends her days now that she must care for her husband.
Many have lost friends and family. Parents. A mother to Alzheimer’s. Best friends and confidantes. Friends move out of state, or a granddaughter leaves for college.
Despite all the losses, my friends are quick to point out the gains they’d found. Some losses are positive: “my perfectionism,” “my need to be right,” and “my need to fill every hour of my day.”
Others have found new ease, peacefulness, and confidence. “I’m more comfortable in my skin.” “I can meet with my clients with minimal preparation and trust that I’ll know what they need.” “I’m more OK to be me.”
On balance, most feel that their gains overshadow the losses, but it’s simplistic to say that loss leads to gain, or that tragedy always has a silver lining. Loss can hurt. I remember the day a guest broke a piece of my wedding china. I tried telling myself, “It’s just a thing,” but I’ll never forget the sound of that plate breaking.
We don’t have to like a loss to appreciate what we find, yet staying positive will help us notice the good we might not otherwise see. Loss is inevitable. How we deal with it is not. Here are a few ways to work positively with loss.
Allow the feelings to be. Give yourself the gift of acknowledging and feeling your losses, without trivializing them away. Feeling a loss doesn’t mean that you have to wallow in it. Wallowing keeps us from noticing that life is multifaceted and always changing. Even in moments of deep sorrow, the smell of honeysuckle can make us smile, or we may delight in the antics of a grandchild. A good-bye may be sad—and also joyous as we remember how much we loved a friend. The knees that won’t take us up mountains can still carry us happily around a nearby garden.
Ditch the suffering where you can. We may not choose the pain we feel, but we can choose the meaning we attach to it. Suffering occurs when we believe that life should be different than it is. That said, don’t judge yourself for a little suffering. (Who among us has reached enlightenment?) You can always use your experience to expand compassion for others.
Reframe the situation. Without denying feelings, you can explore a situation from multiple perspectives, choosing what helps you move on. I’ve lost my ability to race up mountains, but my much slower steps allow me to see more beauty when I hike. Even knowing what we’ve lost, we can rejoice in what we have. When our vision declines, we may no longer see the details in a rose, but we can treasure its fragrance all the more. If our body weakens, we can tap our insight and imagination to experience facets of the world we otherwise might have missed.
Let go of the silver lining fallacy. Loss comes with life, and not every loss will lead to gain. A quest for the proverbial silver lining may keep us from facing our pain and acknowledging how loss can change our lives. Life doesn’t come with a formula that balances the pain of what we lose with the joy of what we find. Chances are good something positive will come out of your experience, and you’ll be more likely to discover it when you approach life with curiosity rather than believing that life owes you happiness.
Track joy. While joy may occasionally slip into our lives without effort on our part—I call that grace—other times, we need to practice keeping our hearts open, and using our attention, curiosity, and wonder to invite more joy into our lives.
Laugh and make music together. An artist friend taught me this one. She’s lost part of her vision, had to give up her preferred medium, and must help her husband with dementia. Rather than go down in self-pity, she gathers friends for a weekly evening of laughter, wine, music, and connection. She buoys her resilience with her friendships—and gains many offers of the rides she needs.
Find your cathedral. My good friend Kate was forced to leave her two-bedroom apartment when rent hikes in the booming Seattle housing market exceeded what she could pay. Fortunately, she located a studio in subsidized senior housing, and it came with a stunning view.
Moving required her to let go of much of her stuff, yet when I visited her, her studio felt artful and cozy. After a leisurely conversation, she insisted that we visit her secret spot. She walked me down a bland, institutional hallway, opened the fire exit door, and invited me to step into a dank, cavernous stairwell lined in gray concrete. I stood with curiosity as she said, “Listen.” Then she began to sing. I felt the magic, as her gorgeous mezzo voice lifted into space. With the notes reverberating off the walls, we were no longer standing in a stairwell. For a moment, we were in a cathedral.
Loss after 50 is part of life. Yes, I still would like that inch and a half to return. Yet Kate’s discovery inspired me.
If we lose our health or have to leave familiar housing, it may hurt. Regret is normal. But we have the power to balance what we lose with the strength of our insight and imaginations—and then we may find a cathedral where others just see concrete.
Sally Fox, owner of Engaging Presence, is a coach and writer who helps individuals develop and craft compelling stories. She writes about following your creative calling after midlife. Find her blog at engagingpresence.com and listen to her podcasts at 3rd ActMagazine.com.