Grieving not only happens when we lose another person. It can be a result of losing physical aspects of our former selves or watching loved ones grow old over time.
For better or worse… our bodies are in a constant state of flux. We may look very different today than we did ten years ago, or even yesterday. It may not seem intuitive to think about grieving in relation to our outer appearance, but with any of life’s changes, grief can seep into our hearts. This doesn’t exclude the physical loss of youth, which is apparent by how our looks have changed through the years.
Aging is a universal experience. Hair loss, wrinkles and stretch marks are part of life. Our personal perception of these attributes largely influences how well we adapt to them.
Beyond gradual aging, sudden physical changes due to health or medical issues may feel more isolating and difficult to overcome. If you’ve undergone cancer treatments, you might mourn the loss of your hair or physical strength. An injury or surgery that leaves scars or disfigurement will permanently change the reflection in the mirror. Grieving over the changes that you experience (or that you see a loved one experience) is a normal and natural response. The difference in how we look is a visual reminder of the bad situations or challenges we have faced. This can trigger sadness or worry, making us miss the days when we felt healthier.
Connecting with others who are coping with similar changes in life can help us gain support and feel less alone in our journey.
No matter your unique story, we can all bet for certain that our bodies are going to look and feel differently as the years go on. Even the joyful experience of pregnancy can bring unwanted body changes that are tough to accept. It’s possible to be delighted to have a healthy new baby, while at the same time feeling upset about your post-pregnancy body. Grief for your previous fitness level can happen every time you aren’t able to fit into an old pair of pants. Anyone who has gone through weight fluctuations likely has some associations between self-image and how clothes fit or used to fit. If we acknowledge our feelings and address our physical changes, we can grieve the person we used to be in order to welcome and embrace the new version of ourselves.
Not all of our physical changes with age will feel negative. At first, as babies, we learn to crawl and walk. We grow taller and stronger while we gain more physical capabilities. Reaching milestones can bring happiness to both little ones and parents alike. Periods of growth during early life can be exciting, especially when everything happens according to plan. Of course, these changes can also be bittersweet…it can seem like babies grow up too fast. You may feel sad to discover that your child is too big for the tiny clothes they were wearing just a week ago.
Furthermore, if a child that you care for isn’t developing “on schedule,” feelings of fear, worry (and grief) can arise. Learning to accept developmental delays means letting go of initially held expectations. It can be challenging to find internal forgiveness in this scenario – not in the typical sense of the word, but rather: the process of letting go of hope for a different outcome. Focus is often set on the child facing an issue, but parents and other close adults often experience a period of grieving after learning that life is going to be different than was originally anticipated.
It’s important to acknowledge disappointment or sadness without feeling guilty. While no one can blame a child for things they cannot control, it’s okay to grieve while adjusting your future hopes and dreams for that child. No one can fully predict how life will turn out for themselves or for others. Remembering this helps us to stay flexible rather than becoming rigidly attached to our vision of the future. Even the most accurate predictions may need to be adjusted as life plays out.
Once babies become children, puberty and young adulthood bring on a new set of challenges. The loss of a carefree childhood and the onset of acne, hormonal changes and emotional ups and downs, puts most of us through some “awkward phases.” While teens are hopefully energetic and eager for the future, they may feel torn between two different places: childhood and adulthood. Physical changes during adolescence bring emotional growing pains that take some time to get used to.
Growing older not only affects us individually but also impacts others around us.
If not so much for the teen, many parents have trouble watching their kids turn into young adults. We may grieve our own loss of youth, or the fact that our friends and family are getting older too. It can be hard to see children grow up and parents get older. Watching older adults in our lives face new challenges with age forces us to reflect on our own aging bodies.
It’s okay to feel uneasy with the constant changes in life. Waves of grief are normal when we acknowledge the profound passing of time.
Physical changes from aging bring
the concept of time to the forefront of our minds, triggering grief.
Even when we want to ignore it, we are reminded when we catch a glimpse
of ourselves in the mirror or in an old photograph.
Adults may have more experience with
change yet aging still comes as a surprise to many adults. Some of us
may not be bothered by watching others get older but we may still have a
harder time when it actually happens to us. A grey hair or a new
wrinkle can catch us off guard. Struggling to do some of the physical
things we used to do with ease may feel scary or defeating. While some
of us take aging in stride, others can be deeply burdened by it.
“My face carries all my memories. Why would I erase them?” Diane Von Furstenberg, from “The Woman I Wanted to Be,” 2014.
Rather than fixating on what we lose
with age, it’s empowering to consider what we gain. A lifetime of
experience is an asset that helps us consciously navigate the world.
With age, we start to learn what is important to us. We may use our time
more wisely, focusing on relationships and projects that bring deeper
meaning to our lives. We may gain a greater appreciation for the speed
of life and as a result, respect and cherish its value.
It’s never helpful to disregard our
true feelings or pretend to be happy when we aren’t. However, if we can
see the passing of time as a gift, we can seek to find joy in the
memories that living longer gives us. Instead of viewing old age as a
phase of loss, we can carry our knowledge and experiences with us. We
can continue to grow and elevate ourselves.
Whether it’s the laugh lines from age, the stretch marks from pregnancy or the battle scars of a cancer survivor, our bodies display direct signs of the life that we have lived. Don’t hide—instead, view your “flaws” as a physical testament of your strength and perseverance.