Life After 50: Can Loss Open Your Heart to Compassion?

01/10/2011 08:46 am ET | Updated Nov 17, 2011

Welcome to the ongoing dialogue about living our best lives after 50. Please join me --and other Huffington Post readers -- in discussing issues that are important to us.

Understanding Loss

Loss can be experienced in many different ways, and it seems tat the older one gets, the more frequently loss can make an appearance. Usually associated with the death of a loved one, the concept of loss is often terribly misunderstood.

What Is "Ambiguous Loss"?

There are specific kinds of loss that are commonly referred to as ambiguous loss, a term first introduced by Dr. Pauline Boss, who defines it as a loss without resolution. A few examples of these kinds of losses are:

  • The death of an adored pet
  • Losing one's independence through poor health or advanced age
  • Witnessing a parent's descent into dementia or Alzheimer's Disease
  • Surgery to remove a body part -- such as a breast -- due to cancer
  • Having to give up an enjoyable activity or hobby because of physical limitations
  • The end of a career, even if by choice
  • Being the victim of a robbery or other crime and losing your sense of security
  • Experiencing the "empty nest" syndrome when children grow up and move out of your home
  • The arrival of menopause, and everything this event symbolizes

Recognizing Loss

Nevertheless, the person experiencing the loss, and those in her world, may not recognize or accept that she is in fact grieving and is therefore deserving of sympathy and compassion. Instead, she is encouraged to get over it and move on with her life.

During the first year of our marriage, I suffered a miscarriage, before eventually having two daughters. It happened early on in the pregnancy, during the 11th week, and my then-OB-GYN was quite matter-of-fact when he delivered the devastating news to my husband and me. He called it a "spontaneous abortion," told us how common it was, and assured me that, because of my good health, there would be other pregnancies. What he failed to realize, as did most of the people in our lives, was that I took a nosedive into a profound period of loss and mourning. I kept it to myself, because the message I got from the world was, "Everything is OK. You'll have more babies." In time, I emerged from my grief, and when I did, I resolved to never sweep my sense of loss and grief under the proverbial rug just because society tells me that it's not severe enough to warrant sympathy and compassion.

The Loss of a Passion

A few months ago, after giving a lecture at a conference, I was talking with a man, who had been in the audience, about staying physically fit after 50. His eyes lit up when he described the many years he had played competitive tennis, spending the last 10 post-retirement years playing almost every day. It was only when he described the pain of his often-debilitating rheumatoid arthritis, and how two years ago it forced him to give up tennis, one of the greatest joys and passions in his life, that his face grew dark and his eyes lost their spark. He went on to tell me how he plunged into depression shortly after stopping, and how, worse, no one in his life understood how deeply he was grieving. He didn't even understand it. Everyone told him to stop complaining, because "at least you're alive."

It's only recently that this lovely gentleman has come out of his grief with a new sense of purpose and mission: he decided that if he can't play tennis, he'll teach others how to play, and he now volunteers several times a week, showing financially disadvantaged teenagers how to get in the game. This is a great example of turning loss into compassion.

The Loss of a Job and an Identity

A woman I know recently lost her job. Even though she was nearing retirement age and received an excellent package, she still grieved. Her job was a very big part of her identity and gave her structure, responsibility and respect. She told me that her loss was so profound that she found it hard to get out of bed most mornings. Her two sons had graduated from college and were living on their own in different cities, and her husband was still very much involved in his small but thriving business, so they were all too busy to notice how deeply affected she was.

The few people she shared her feelings with pooh-poohed on her loss by trying to convince the woman that she was incredibly fortunate to have received such a great severance package, and that now she was free to do what she wanted. But the problem was that she hadn't prepared herself for this, and she had no idea what she wanted to do with the rest of her life. Her grief, then, was compounded by confusion and guilt.

Acknowledging Loss When It Is Happening to You or Others

These are just a few examples of the kinds of everyday loss that can occur to any of us, or to people we know and love. Loss of any kind can be devastating, but it's these more ambiguous kinds of loss that are very often hard to recognize in ourselves or others. The more traditional kinds of loss -- death, for example -- has religious or societal rituals to help people get through them, but that's not the case with most of these other kinds of losses. The most important and compassionate thing we can do to help those who are experiencing loss is to acknowledge that the person is having this experience and help her give herself permission to go through the mourning process.

Opening Your Heart to Compassion

I emerged from my period of mourning with a powerful mission: to acknowledge loss when it is happening to me, and to show compassion when it is happening to others.


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