Aging Gracefully (Or Not): With Loss

Aging Gracefully (Or Not): With Loss

Natalie Gelman

After my mother died, I realized for the first time in a pronounced, internal way that people who are significant to me will die, that mothers die, and that I will die. That reality as a definite meaning had eluded me. Years ago when I saw the movie “Splendor in the Grass,” I was stunned by a scene in which a class was discussing Wordsworth’s “Ode on Intimations of Immortality.” I prided myself on being mature enough to have given up the fantasy that I was immortal. I was wrong. In my head I had given it up, but in my heart I still believed I would go on forever.

The realization that I would die prompted me to look more to the years I had left in my life. I felt like time was moving much too quickly. I imagined getting old, getting ill, being helpless. I found myself yearning for my youth, wanting to regain the naïveté and idealism.

I was much more aware of grief and its prevalence, especially in songs and movies about middle age, such as Billy Joel’s song “Keeping the Faith," Andrew Lloyd Webber’s song “Memory” and Francis Ford Coppola’s masterful movie Peggy Sue Got Married. These evoked similar feelings of time, past life, and limitedness of life ahead. After I listened to the song “Memory,” I wrote the following:

The song touches my experience of wishing I was the same physically and grieving that loss of how I was. I imagine that the past was the fun part, the highlight of my life, the energy, the risk, the excitement, and I find myself dwelling in the past and acknowledging with great sadness that it is over. I will never know those feelings again. I desperately want to. The reality of death impinges over and over for me in fleeting ways. It feels like a struggle between living, which is represented by my past, and nothingness, which is represented by my future. I am resisting, fearing the nothingness, yet aware that the past is over. In reality, nothing changes but my perception. Today becomes yesterday. All of life offers the potential for nothingness. It is no more than what I choose to do with it. There is the choice of living with the memories or exercising the potential to give meaning to the future.

The loss of youth is another component of this theme. Women experience anger and sadness as they become aware of body changes. Appearance and tone change. Flabby and dry skin, graying hair, facial wrinkles, and increased weight are commonly mentioned as signs of middle age. These signs are seen as irreversible, and can be accompanied by the thought that one is no longer attractive. Many begin to diet, exercise, and change hair color and style.

There is an element of surprise with the discovery of body changes. One goes from youth to midlife suddenly, without gradual awareness of a changing physical process. All at once bodies are not as “attractive.” This awareness is often accompanied by the recognition that we suddenly look like we remember our mothers looking. The accompanying feelings are painful.

Here are a few brief depictions offered by people I interviewed:

I remember noticing the first lines around my eyes. I had told myself that that happens to everyone else, and then, all of a sudden, you discover that it is happening to you ... I went through a lot of depression. I was leaving behind the comfort I got from looking in the mirror and feeling beautiful to myself ... You know I was always getting positive responses from men ... and suddenly that passed. When I first realized it, when I first zeroed in and realized what was happening, I suddenly looked like a middle-aged woman.

I am resentful toward women who are older than me who look younger than me. Those things didn’t used to bother me. They really do now ... I am very upset with my body. Knowing that it’s looking old and I can’t change it the way I used to. I intend to color my hair because I don’t like it turning colors, and I don’t like the way it looks, and I don’t want to look old.

I think of my mother being so old, and she was younger than I am now. Seeing myself as middle aged, I think of my mother.

I got my hair cut very short for the first time since I was little. I needed to get rid of the gray. I will not look like my mother.

I recall seeing the actress Lauren Bacall interviewed on The Today Show years ago. It was her birthday. I believe it was her 50th. She was asked if she had surgery or injections to maintain her youth. She said that she had nothing done and would never have anything done because she felt her face, lines and all, told the story of her life and that was what she wanted people to see. I liked her plans and imagined I would feel similarly.

And so middle age begins with painful feelings. It does move into a place of newfound spirit, but it takes time to get there.

Natalie Gelman can be contacted at drnataliegelman@gmail.com. Her web site is http://drnataliegelman.com.