The Intersection of Grief and Middle Age

Photo by Oliver Roos on Unsplash
“And alone and without his nest shall the eagle fly across the sun.” — The Prophet

Ten years ago I worried about turning forty.

I stood at the precipice of middle age and wondered what my life would look like when my children, then 5 and 8, were grown. I anticipated the next decade with something akin to excitement, looking forward to the year my older daughter would graduate high school and my younger daughter would be a fully formed teenager.

I couldn’t wait to meet them, my almost-grown children, as they entered adulthood and I entered middle age.

Then, three years after those hopeful ruminations, my older daughter was diagnosed with cancer. She died in March 2017, six weeks shy of her 16th birthday.

I’m no longer approaching the soggy edges of middle age.

I’m waist deep in the salty muck of it. I’ll be turning 48 in May. This is the year I’d long-ago anticipated. My older daughter would’ve turned 18 (also in May), and my younger daughter will turn 15 next month. It’s hard to believe that I’d onced looked forward to this time with optimism and hope.

Ten years was a lifetime ago. Cancer changed everything. Grief changed it again. Aging isn’t what I expected back in those halcyon pre-cancer days.

Miriam-Webster dictionary defines middle age as “the period of life from about 45 to about 65.”

I think that definition is absurd. Taken literally, it would mean that we live (minimally) to the ripe old age of 90, and have the potential to reach 130.

But, of course, we have no idea how long we’ll live. Perhaps I’d already reached midlife at the age of thirty. Perhaps I have a few weeks left to live. This thought isn’t meant to be grim, it’s merely an example of where my mind goes these days, wondering at the meaning of meaningless terms (like “middle age”).

My younger daughter is nearly the same age her sister was when she died.

She is an incredibly gifted artist and I have no doubt that she’ll secure a scholarship to an art school she loves — far away from home. I want this for her more than I’ve ever wanted anything (well, not anything), but I’m experiencing something akin to anticipatory empty nest syndrome and — I’m afraid.

I’m afraid for her, but I’m terrified for myself.

When she leaves, my journey into middle age will be fully realized. My nest, as they say, will be empty.

Psychology Today defines Empty Nest Syndrome as “a transitional period in life that highlights loneliness and loss.”

The article is clear to point out that this is not a clinical diagnosis or a disease, but a passing phase. Even so, there are treatment recommendations that read something like words of encouragement.

The treatment for empty nest syndrome goes something like this:

— Psychotherapy may be beneficial

— Treatment with antidepressants may be beneficial

“For many, coping with an empty nest is mitigated by remaining in contact with the child.”

That last one hurts. My first daughter died a few years before she would’ve left for college. My second daughter is now approaching the phase of her life that marks the beginning of the end of my daily contact with her. It brings up so much anxiety, so much fear. Add to this that I am now 48 and I don’t understand anything about the landscape of my life anymore.

My fear is not groundless.

It’s the fear of a mother who has already lost one daughter and has learned that, sometimes, real monsters lurk in the dark. It’s understanding the finality of saying goodbye to a child.

I don’t want to lay this fear at the feet of my younger daughter. She is doing everything right — looking forward to her life and anticipating her future in a way that’s healthy and strong. But I can’t stop feeling dread when I envision her going out into a world that doesn’t know she watched her sister die. She was only 12 years old at the time.

I want the world to be kinder to her. I want it to be softer. I dearly want it to be safer.

I don’t think she wants these things (did I mention she was strong?) I also want to let go of these wants. I suspect it’s the only way to fully embrace middle age and the empty nest that goes along with it.

I’m anticipating the long stretches of time in between visits and texts that will be filled with my own dark thoughts. I’m counting down the empty days to more emptiness. I’m fathoming the unfathomable, I have to let this daughter go too.

A 2008 study comparing bereaved parents (defined as parents who have lost a child from infancy to age 34), found that we are more likely to experience depression, poor well-being, and more health problems.

Recovery (from grief), was associated with having a sense of life purpose and — this is the clincher — having additional children.

My midlife crisis is not any ordinary crisis.

It’s a gathering emptiness that started the morning after my daughter died and has followed me through the days, weeks, months and years since.

It has changed the way I parent my younger daughter, who has been a bright light in my life these past two years. I have more patience with her than I ever had when my girls were younger. When I’m with her, I’m acutely aware of the passage of time. This is a bitter paradox of parental grief — I am, at last, able to appreciate life’s smallest moments, but it’s as though I’m mourning their loss as they’re happening.

The Psychology Today article contains a short list of the symptoms of empty nest syndrome (very handy, don’t you think?) The last item on the list is, “A loss of purpose and meaning in life.”

I never thought of myself as the kind of woman whose key meaning in life was her own motherhood. Yet, that’s exactly the kind of woman I am.

The girls — they were (and are) my meaning. Everything about my life became better after they were born. I’m not ashamed to admit it (now).

Mothering my girls is my biggest achievement. My god, I would do it all over again in a heartbeat.

I am in the middle of middle age and I’m all alone.

My circle of friends and family are aging too. It seems that each passing day brings with it a devastating diagnosis or the loss of someone’s parent or another secret Facebook group focusing on the struggles and mysteries of (gulp) menopause.

My friends’ children are getting accepted into college or embarking on their first shaky years away from from home. In the next decade, they will get married and have their own children.

These are experiences and milestones that should connect me, but I’m witnessing them from a distance. I keep wondering, what is the point? I watched my older daughter’s dreams grow ever more distant as she got sicker and sicker. Her own midlife was at the age of 7.

This thought sits, brooding, at the center of my emptiness — why do I get to reach the ripe old age of 48 when my daughter didn’t live to see her sixteenth birthday? This is a nagging, evil, toxic thought that comes from a place of deep grief. It is an unanswerable question.

The meaning of life is life.

I once complained about my weathered, aging hands in front of my older daughter, lamenting their ugliness and my own looming decriptitude.

“Don’t,” My daughter had replied. “You’re lucky you get to age.” She was about 14 years old at the time.

These words settled into my soul and they continue to surface when the emptiness grows so large that it obscures everything else in my life — my life, a gift of years that my daughter never had.

Midlife is still life, after all. There will always be fear, but I’m starting to realize that’s not all bad. Fear is a part of living. Fear means there are still things I’m afraid to lose, and experiences I want to try before my own inevitable sunsetting.

If my daughter were alive, she would remind me that it’s a gift to live long enough to see my nest grow empty. My girl was wise.