Ten years ago I worried about turning 40. I stood at the precipice of middle age and wondered what my life would look like when my children, then five and eight, 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, Ana, was diagnosed with cancer. She died in March of 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. This is the year I’d long-ago anticipated. Ana would’ve turned 18. My younger daughter turned 15 in April. It’s hard to believe that I’d once 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.
Merriam-Webster 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 with the potential to reach 130.
But, of course, we have no idea how long we’ll live. Perhaps I already reached midlife at the age of 30. 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.
My younger daughter is now 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 still afraid for her, and terrified for myself. When she leaves, my journey into middle age will be fully realized. My nest, as they say, will be empty.
I must be experiencing something akin to anticipatory empty nest syndrome, which Psychology Today has defined 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 looks 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 in 10th grade, a phase of childhood that marks the beginning of the end of my daily contact with her. And I am now 48. 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 dread the day that she goes out into a world that doesn’t know she watched her sister die.
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. She’s much stronger than me. 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: that I have to let this daughter go too.
A 2008 study in the Journal of Family Psychology 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 an ordinary crisis
My midlife crisis is a gathering emptiness that started the morning after my daughter died and has followed me through the 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. 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. Mothering my girls was — and is — my biggest achievement. I would do it all over again in a heartbeat.
I’m in the middle of middle age and I’m all alone
My 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 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 seven.
This thought sits, brooding, at the center of my emptiness. Why do I get to reach the age of 48 when my daughter didn’t live to see her 16th 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 decrepitude.
“Don’t,” my daughter said. “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, after all, is still life. 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.
Jacqueline Dooley is a freelance writer located in New York’s Mid-Hudson Valley. Her essays on parenting and grief have appeared in the Washington Post, Longreads, and elsewhere. She writes about grief on Medium where she’s been featured in GEN and Human Parts.