Your Second Season’s monthly Magnificent Midlife Spotlight woman for December 2019!
Written by Ann Bloomingdale
The famous commentator, Andy Rooney said, “It’s paradoxical that the idea of living a long life appeals to everyone, but the idea of getting old doesn’t appeal to anyone.” There is a lot of truth to that quote, especially for women going through the midlife transition. When younger we enjoy the bliss that ignorance brings. We start our trek on the path of life and look forward to the milestones that lie ahead. We tend, however, to limit our thoughts of the future to our 20’s and 30’s and not concern ourselves with middle age and beyond.
Fortunately, that place society deems as “over the hill,” can bring new opportunities, a renewed sense of identity and the time and freedom to finally give much needed attention to self. It also becomes painfully clear that the road we travel in midlife will have its unavoidable bumps, twists and turns. We are forced to confront those realities of life our youth had allowed us to avoid. Children, now grown, will leave the nest and at some point, our aging parents will pass away. Though it does nothing to lessen the blow, we are aware we will eventually meet such trials.
Many women, however, in addition to enduring the unavoidable struggles during their midlife transition, find themselves hitting an unexpected detour that can prove to be traumatic and lifechanging. Their travel is interrupted, and the road is strewn with feelings of uncertainty, instability and the untimely burden of loss and grief. Jenny Dagerman-West hit such a detour at the age of 41 when she lost her husband, Ron to kidney cancer. He was only 42 years old.
To say the loss of her high school sweetheart and husband of 21 years was painful would be an understatement. With two teenage children, Jenny suddenly found herself on a solitary journey, shouldering responsibilities even two parents would find challenging. “One of the hardest things to deal with was the death of my husband five years ago and then having to care for my 13-year-old son at the time, by myself. That was the challenge that I had, just trying to keep the family together.” said Jenny, now 47. Jenny’s friends and family proved invaluable in providing support. She is close in age to both her younger sister Nicole and her older sister, Lisa. “My two sisters have been there for me through everything in life, as well as my mom. I don’t know what I would do without them.” Jenny said. She also became friends with another woman, Jenn, who also was grieving the loss of her husband. “We hooked up and honestly it was like a sisterhood.” Jenny recalled. She had grief counseling for a while as it helped to talk to someone, but the bottom line for Jenny was perseverance. “You can’t hang your head. You gotta keep going.” Her strength is both admirable and inspirational. “I think the easiest thing for me to pick up and go was looking at my kids and knowing that they need me.” she said. Jenny’s children have always been her priority. “It was really hard because they lost their dad at age 13 and 19. A lot of the issues that I faced, I was now doing it on my own, whether I liked it or not.” she said. “And believe me, I still break down, but I noticed that when I feel bad, the kids feel bad, so I have to keep a positive attitude to keep their mind well.”
In addition to overwhelming grief, the stark reality of her financial situation hit hard. “Money was a huge issue and still is,” she commented. Jenny and Ron’s combined income had insured them a comfortable life. After Ron’s death, Jenny’s income dropped dramatically, forcing her family to make yet another transition financially. “It was tough.” she said. “Fortunately, I was able to receive pension until my youngest turned 18.” But then the pension ended. “That’s when reality really kicked in.” she recalled. “We lost everything. We lost health insurance, dental insurance, life insurance policies… everything. I lost everything.” Fortunately, Jenny’s parents, who raised her to believe family took care of each other, did just that. The financial help her parents gave was an enormous relief. “If it wasn’t for my parents to this day, I wouldn’t be in my house.” Jenny said. She is now a caregiver to her aging parents.
It is often said that midlife presents opportunities and challenges to make a fresh start. Jenny describes herself as having two lives. One prior to her husband’s death and the life she has built since. “My life started in 2014,” she remarked. The loss of her husband had set her life on a different course. “It really turned me into a different person.” She found herself playing the role of both parents in raising her children and all that goes with it.” What we planned to do together, I have to do by myself now,” she said.
Along with juggling daily demands, Jenny runs a daycare center out of her home. “Working with kids really helps me stay in the right frame of mind during these tough times because they’re so needy and innocent they make me smile and laugh throughout the day. When my husband was sick, I was taking care of a down syndrome baby and if you’ve ever been around a down syndrome person or child, there’s no way you can be unhappy. They keep you happy,” she said.
The trials and tribulations of midlife would not be complete without menopause, or in Jenny’s case, perimenopause. “Oh, perimenopause how I hate you!” Jenny remarked. “I also have a thyroid condition, so that doesn’t help with any of the symptoms or concerns.” Most noticeable are mood swings for which Jenny takes a more natural approach, namely, ashwagandha, an herb that helps with mood. She also makes time for much needed self-care.
Jenny recognizes the importance of taking a proactive approach to the emotional whirlwind often experienced in midlife. Her remedies include drinking a lot of water, meditation, yoga and the healing power of music. “I am constantly playing music,” she noted. “If I’m down in the dumps, I pop in my playlist. I play some Jim Croce and The Grateful Dead, and that gets me going.” To relax and wind down she indulges in pampering herself. “The thing that helps me with severe anxiety is a nice warm bath or shower.” she said. She also relaxes with oils and meditation. “It helps to get myself out of that mind frame and get to a better place,” she added. One of the challenges women face, however, is the lack of energy to take the needed measures to insure self-care. Jenny contends that our body can deceive our mind into believing we just don’t have the strength for this indulgence. She stressed the importance of challenging and overcoming that limiting belief. “I have to get out of my head and literally have to drag myself off the couch to get into that shower or bath,” she admitted. In caring for herself, she is better able to care for others.
Another pursuit of Jenny’s is self-improvement. “To this day I study how to better myself, how to better my kids, and what really makes people happy.” With the extra time Jenny now has, she has studied and observed others which has solidified her beliefs on how she wants to approach life. The biggest factor in Jenny’s success in meeting and overcoming the challenges of midlife are her kids. “I guess the only thing that I could say helps me get through this midlife B.S. would be laughter, music and my kids. They keep me going. My husband was a very funny man; he won the funniest person senior year. Needless to say, his kids follow in his footsteps and they both keep me wanting to stay on a positive, happy path.” Jenny has a simple, yet profound take on life’s struggles. “It is what it is.” she said. “God only throws things at you that you can handle.”
Aware that the midlife transition is anything but easy, Jenny believes in taking control. “Don’t let it get you down and don’t let it run your life. You’re in charge. You’re in charge of your body, you’re in charge of your mind and your soul. What’s right for one might not be right for the other.” she advised.
Jenny is firm in her stance on the importance of keeping a positive mindset. “After everything I’ve been through there isn’t any other way to approach life than in a positive way, because it could always be worse.” She adds that gratitude is of such importance, even in the face of adversity, and offers some hard-earned wisdom: “Appreciate what you have in life because you could be taken tomorrow.”
What is amazing about Jenny’s story is how well it exemplifies the fortitude of the human spirit.
We are unable to stop the passage of time and if we are lucky, we will inevitably mature through several phases of life. We start out crawling, begin to walk and ultimately run through our years, only to be stopped in midlife. It is here that we assess and reflect on where we’re at. We take note of what’s behind us and contemplate what’s ahead. Often, we find we are not where or who we expected to be. Life hands us each our share of triumphs and tragedies.
Regardless of how unique each of our experiences may be, the emotions these experiences evoke are universal. One life certainty is most of us, will at some point, suffer disappointment, pain or loss. We learn early on that in many instances, we have absolutely no choice in what happens to us. Jenny’s story suggests that although at times this fact leads us to feel helpless, our real power lies in our ability to choose how we react to life’s adversities. In the well-known serenity prayer, we ask for help in accepting the things we cannot change and for courage to change the things we can. Jenny’s ability to accept that life hasn’t gone as expected and her courage to choose to rise above devastation, however painful it may have been, is a lesson to us all. We are stronger than we think, and as Jenny reminds us regarding this shared experience called life: “We’re in charge.”