Our Autumnal Years: Coming Back Home
Coming Home to Grieve
We may fear (and even anticipate) that our Autumnal home is no longer very inviting. It may be saturated with sadness and self-loathing. And who else lives in this home: our significant other and perhaps children who have not yet left home. What are they likely to think and feel about the changing status of the Autumnal man or women? Are they angry? Do they feel vulnerable? The widely read book of the 1960s, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance is ostensibly about a father, Robert Persig (2009), who is searching for quality in his life. Persig’s search on a motorcycle includes a son, who rides on the back of the bike. The father is seeking enlightenment, but his son sees nothing but his father’s back while clinging to him on the motorcycle. Why can’t the Zen-enlightened Persig see that he is depriving his son of his own experiences in life? How can he be so eloquent about the world of abstraction, while being so blind to the needs of his own son? How could he be blind to the fact that the world he wanted to love includes his son too?
There are essentially three kinds of losses that we are likely to face (or at least fear) as we enter our Autumnal years. First, we must grieve the losses over which we have no control. We mourn the loss of friends, parents or a job. It is usually during our Fifties, Sixties and Seventies that we begin to face this first kind of loss. We must face the death of our parents and of people our own age who we know and love. We often grieve the loss of opportunities to say good-bye to them. In some sense, as we bid farewell to our colleagues (as well as our parents and other people of their generation) we are saying good-bye to a part of ourselves (Freud, 1917). This type of loss often portents the grieving in which we must begin to engage as we start to bid farewell to parts of ourselves during our Autumnal years.
There is a second kind of loss. We grieve losses over which we do have control. We make tough choices between different life options. We must prune the garden of our life. This second type of loss requires a different kind of grieving. Our colleague, Bob Shukraft (personal communication) (who died at a much too early age) suggested that the primary developmental tasks in the first half of our life concern the expansion of our capabilities, whereas the developmental tasks of the second half of life generally concern the difficult choices we must make between different life options. To make room for our new dreams and our new voices, we must get rid of several outmoded parts of ourselves. We must weed our garden. We must create a new home for ourselves. We must create this new home in collaboration with those we love.
We find it hard to throw out old papers, computer files or memorabilia. We usually drag them from one organization to the next and from home to home. The so-called “object-relations” psychotherapists write about “transitional objects.” They suggest that we tend to carry something from our old home to our new home in order to provide some continuity between the old and new. Classic transitional objects include teddy bears, special blankets and a favourite doll. As adults, we also have our transitional objects. Our own teddy bears (be they our favourite books, photo albums or an old set of golf clubs) play an important (though often unacknowledged) role in our transition to a new home. They occupy valuable space and gather dust.
Yet some of these papers, files, playthings and memorabilia are treasures. We need to be careful about what we discard. This is what George Vaillant (2012) was referring to when he described the role played by generative guardians in our society. The ‘Delete File’ function on the computer that we use might ask: “Do you really want to eliminate this file?” We need to ask ourselves a similar question. Sometimes old projects link again (or for the first time) to new-found or re-emerging interests. These items may move to the top of our list. When we throw out old files, we are also getting rid of old dreams that were never fulfilled or that received little attention. Many of us get stubborn during our Autumnal years: we don’t want to give up something, even though it is no longer of interest to us or relevant to our career.