I had a rather cryptic e-conversation with a therapist friend who recently attended a grief workshop. She mentioned that they stressed things I’ve written about but aren’t commonly known, such as there being no way to do grief wrong (it might be painful, but it isn’t wrong). She said I was ahead, and that this wasn’t the first time.
I responded, “It’s nice to know. But then, I already knew.”
She came back with, “Yes, you did. And I am sorry you had to learn.”
I was about to agree that I was also sorry that I had to learn about grief the hard way, then I realized how remote all those years of grief seem now, so I wrote back, “It’s funny, but it was so long ago, none of it seems to matter anymore, except, of course, for the part about Jeff being dead. That will always matter to me.”
She agreed, “Except, of course, about Jeff, that will always matter. I feel that about many things.” Then we come to the cryptic part. She ended by saying, “Maybe it is age, maybe perspective, but I am feeling many things not felt before.”
I’m not sure what she meant by that final sentence, but it got me thinking about the things I feel now that I have not felt before, and only one thing came to mind: I feel old. That’s sounds so terrible, but it really isn’t. I don’t feel old as in decrepit or sick or helpless, but old as in a different era of my life.
When we were young, the old seemed separate from us, as if they’d never been like us, as if they’d always been old. Most of us were smart enough to know that wasn’t true, but since we’d never seen the elderly when they were young, it seemed true. The other side of that feeling is that we never really thought we ourselves would cross that line from youth to old age. Most young people feel they are different from the elderly, that they will be the exception and will remain forever young. Well, I certainly wasn’t the exception, and now the line has been crossed and I am on the side of the elderly.
Oddly, just as I’d imagined the elderly when I was young, as if they’d always been old, that’s how I feel. As if I’ve always been old. My youth is now as distant and as unimaginable as old age once was. That girl I was, that young woman, that half of a couple, that griever are all lost in the past and no longer seem to have anything to do with the woman I am today.
I don’t think this feeling is a bad thing since it is what it is. It doesn’t feel negative, anyway. It’s just an acknowledgement of a different time of life. The whole maiden, mother, crone trilogy, perhaps. My mother stage sort of came first because as the oldest girl of a rather large family, I so often had to take care of the younger kids. My crone stage came in having to shepherd Jeff and my parents out of this world — a midwife to the dying, so to speak. What’s left is the maiden stage, and that’s not happening. Though in a way, it is. Buying my first house so late in life, starting over in a new place. Just . . . starting. That is all part of the maiden era.
People often talk as if the elderly are simply youngsters in a decaying body, and that might be true for some people, but that isn’t true for me. Despite my facetiousness about going through my “maiden era,” I don’t feel the child in me struggling to escape the burden of age. I feel ageless, or perhaps I feel more as if being my age — the age I am right now —is the right age. And so it was during all the “right now”s of my life. (Meaning that whatever age I was, that was the right age for me at that time.)
The bad part of being old is that the body is wearing down and wearing out. Weird little things happen, such as rolling over in bed and suddenly the knee is out of whack and you can’t walk or your trusty immune system doesn’t work as well or things slide down the wrong tube when swallowing. But even these matters don’t seem so much a part of growing old as of . . . entropy, perhaps.
I might change my mind about all this as I slip from a young elderly age into an older elderly age, but whatever happens, I hope I can continue to see the aging process as just another phase of the adventure we call life. After all, that’s how I tried to deal with grief: accepting it as much as possible as another experience — a rather painful experience (to put it mildly) but no less valid than the pleasant times.
Just as our culture seems to frown on people who admit to feeling grief, as if grief is failing, it seems to frown on people who admit to feeling old, as if that too is a failing. But I didn’t hesitate to admit to feeling sad, so I certainly am not going to hesitate to admit I feel old. It’s just the way life is. And it’s just the way I am.
Pat Bertram is the author of Grief: The Inside Story – A Guide to Surviving the Loss of a Loved One. “Grief: The Inside Story is perfect and that is not hyperbole! It is exactly what folk who are grieving need to read.” –Leesa Healy, RN, GDAS GDAT, Emotional/Mental Health Therapist & Educator.