“Life has got to be lived—that’s all there is to it. At seventy, I would say the advantage is that you take life more calmly. You know that ‘this too shall pass.’” ~Eleanor Roosevelt
This morning during my walk I listened to Brene Brown’s new Podcast. In this recent episode she was talking to “grief expert” David Kessler. While I was unfamiliar with his work or his books, I have read the works of his former co-worker, Elizabeth Kubler Ross. After years of research and study, along with their own experiences of loss and grieving, Ross and Kessler offer a road map to any person suffering from loss or grieving. After listening to a great conversation between Brene and David, I was left with several questions. The big one was asking whether it’s possible that those of us over a certain age, say 60-65, have an advantage over the young in these times. Here are a couple of thoughts that popped up for me.
First off, I think it is important to mention that both Kessler and Brown acknowledge that we are ALL going through stages of loss and grief during this pandemic. Even if we are fortunate enough to stay healthy and have everyone we know escape the virus, we are all still profoundly feeling the loss of our former way of life. Just as people commonly refer to the time before 9/11 and what has changed, once this time is past we will all tell stories about how things “used to be.”
So not only are we experiencing the loss of life as we know it, many of our illusions about our country, our leadership, our economic system and our healthcare are also being deeply challenged on a daily basis. On a more individual perspective, we are grieving our loss of personal freedoms, our loss of convenience and comfort, along with our mobility. Most of us have had to give up our plans for the next couple of months, our social gatherings, our spiritual gatherings and some even have had to give up family gatherings. Then there are those who can’t work and have lost their jobs and their income. Children have lost their time at school, which includes their friends, connections, and their introduction to their world beyond their parents. The list of loss goes on and on.
Adding to the problem is the danger in denying that we are even feeling loss. Even if we manage to squelch the anxiety smoldering within, it will likely be directed onto those we care about inappropriately. We might also try to self-medicate with food, alcohol, drugs or other behaviors that can actually make us more susceptible to illness (not to mention more miserable) than before. Plus, we can be insensitive to anyone else who is suffering as much, or more, than we are.
Okay, so once we accept that there is a lot of grief, loss and disappointment happening to all of us, what are a few things we can do besides acknowledge it? After listening to David Kessler I remembered my father. I distinctly recall that towards the end of his life most of his family, friends and acquaintances had already passed away. My mom had died a few years earlier—and obviously that was his closest connection to loss. Plus, only one of his seven siblings was still alive. In addition, Dad was deeply connected to his buddies at the local Elks Lodge. I think he was a member of that group for over 50 years and up until weeks before his passing he went there at least once a week to play pool and socialize. But the joy slowly diminished because of all his friends, I think there was only one guy from the old crowd who still remained. He too passed shortly after Dad.
I remember thinking how difficult that would be—watching so many people you care about disappear from your life. But in reality, Dad seemed rather resigned to it. And rather than let it crush him, I had the sense that he had made peace with the idea that we all must face loss on a regular basis. And the older we are, chances are we have all navigated loss and its accompanying grief through the years.
Think about it. Aging itself asks us to accept the loss of our youth and what that used to mean. While many of us are still very healthy—sometimes even healthier than we were when we were young—it’s different and I think we know it. We’ve also had to give up the idea that we had endless years to strive and achieve things—because there was always the sense that we would recover and eventually reach our goals no matter how many years it took. Many of us have grown to accept that the goals we worked so hard for, for dozens of years, really weren’t that fulfilling or safe or rewarding as we hoped for when we started. When the idea that our future is shorter than we ever considered when we were young, things change. We adjust. Even if we’ve never given it a thought, we usually accept the loss and disappointment, and keep on looking for the good, the positive, and the future.
I’m also guessing that once most of us who have reached a certain age we’ve had someone close to us pass away. Obviously if our parents are no longer around that’s a big one. Then there are siblings. My older sister Ann passed away two years ago from cancer. Suddenly I went from a lifetime of having three sisters to having two sisters—and I’m still adjusting to how that change defines me. I think we are all adjusting to our losses, one way or another. Kessler is clear that we each have our own unique style of grief and it is something we must all face if we are to continue living life the best we can.
So shouldn’t those experiences give us some small advantage over those who are younger? Some of those under 50 have been lucky enough to have never lost a job or struggled for income. Most of them have never yet had someone close to them die. Many of them have enjoyed the freedoms that we all take for granted these days—things like endless entertainment of just about any variety, the ability to travel the world in relative safety, the ability to go to school and follow any profession we choose, the ability to find and love another person regardless of their race, religion, sexual orientation or location world-wide.
Suddenly all that is on hold and even when many of our freedoms return, it will be different. We will be different. We’ll all be saying things like, “Remember when you used to be able to hug or shake hands with anyone you met without thinking about where they’ve been?” Or how about just assuming all restaurants and stores are “clean.” Like before the AIDS Epidemic where sexual freedom was far less restrictive, the whole world will start thinking about how easily one person can infect the world, how our leadership can either support or destroy our confidence in government, how healthcare becomes really important if you need it, and how valuing our relationships is far more rewarding than pursuing money or success at any cost.
After listening to that podcast this morning I realized that perhaps one of the most supportive things we seniors can do for those younger than us, is to model a sense of resilience, peace and hope. I personally don’t think our worry or anxiety will save them or be that helpful. And how does blame, anger or fear guide anyone forward? I tend to think the most comforting action of all would be to show them the same sort of peaceful acceptance my father demonstrated towards his unavoidable litany of losses.
But let me be clear, I’m not saying we just give up and accept things we can change. Right now the serenity prayer used by AA is very relevant. Can we learn to “accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference?” Let’s continue to do what we can to stay healthy and encourage others to do the same. Let’s support each other any way we can—from a distance. Let’s keep in mind that we have lived through a lot and faced many losses by the time we reach our age—and we’re still here . And regardless of all the changes that might be coming—let’s stay hopeful that we will come through it together—and be stronger, more resilient, more compassionate toward each other, and more focused on what really matters in our lives. Plus, it is SMART to remember that no matter what, we always have the choice about how we respond to any situation. And yes, this too shall pass.