I sometimes think the hardest part of being middle aged is coping with too much loss. I’m not talking about the long and depressing list of the things we have learned to do without at this point of our lives: good eyesight, a slim waistline, a dependable memory, the ability to eat rich foods right before bedtime and still sleep like a baby, etc. I’m talking about the almost devastating sense of loss that comes from knowing far too many people who are no longer with us.
As a child, I was lucky enough not to lose any member of my family I was truly close to, and I was almost eighteen when my grandmother, whom I loved dearly, died. I can still remember how long it took before I could accept that I would never see her again, and how for a while after her death, it was almost physically painful to be in her house. But that was just the beginning. By my early thirties, all my relatives of my grandmother’s generation were gone, or at least the ones I actually knew. And the year I turned fifty was the same year that my father died.
I have reached the age where I have known too many people who are gone, whether they were family, friends, coworkers or even just casual acquaintances. I know people my age who have lost both parents, who have lost their spouses, who have lost siblings, and worst of all, sometimes even their children. I suppose I was naive about death, thinking that the pain of losing too many people who are important to you was something that didn’t happen until you were well and truly old, unless you lived in a war-torn country. I didn’t realize that the process of loss begins much earlier for most people, even for those of us who have been fortunate to live relatively peaceful lives.
Sadly, losing people we love is just a natural part of life and we really have no choice in the matter. But what I can choose is how I react to the loss. I can choose to be sad and angry, and honestly, in the days, weeks or even months after someone I care about dies, sad and angry is exactly what I am, and it doesn’t particularly feel like a choice. But after the initial grief passes, I can choose to be thankful for the time I had with the people I loved, and I can use my grief as a reminder of just how fragile and fleeting life really is.
I think the best response to the long and growing list we middle-agers have of loved ones who have died is to remember to treasure the time we have with the people who are still with us. These days, I rarely have a phone call with my mother (who just turned 85) that doesn’t end with “love you.” Several good friends and I routinely say the same thing, sometimes in person, sometimes in emails or texts, and they aren’t empty words. We have been around long enough to know that we need to tell people how much we care about them. We have figured out that we need to make time for each other, even when it’s not convenient, and to put aside the petty differences that seemed so important when we were young and thought we had all the time in the world.
I know I can’t change the fact that too many people I want in my life are now gone. But what I can do is make sure I appreciate all the people I care about who are still here, and to never forget just how fragile and precious life really is.