I was a child of about 6 years old when I first realized that I was going to die. That in fact, all of life leads to and ultimately culminates in death. Now, at 60, I can still remember the profound sense of meaninglessness that washed over me with the dark realization.
What’s the purpose of even being alive, my little 6-year-old-mind mused, as I pushed my tiny legs through the mud puddles forming from the Louisiana rain that day, if all we are going to do is die? I was indignant at the injustice of it all. And it was also the beginning of my quest for purpose and meaning in this life. Because, if I’m just living to die, I declared, why bother living at all????
I’ve since learned there is quite a lot more to this life than just dying. Though if we’re honest, it is still the finality of death which lurks in the back of all our minds, informing the foundation of our entire existence, and which compels and defines so much of our behavior and how we live.
All around us we see human beings challenging and fighting death, or attempting to. But, there is not enough plastic surgery, supplements, physical exercise, cleaning eating, or “living well” that will save any of us from going gentle into that good night.
When you’re young it’s easy to anesthetize yourself with the illusion that you just might be the one who finally escapes its clutches. I know I certainly lived with that happy little trompe l’oeil in my youth.
And it worked well for a time. It shielded me emotionally and psychologically from the bitter truth that one day, the light in my eyes would surely dim and the spark in my soul would flicker out. It helped me quell the din of the prophetic biblical truth, that from “dust thou art and from dust thou shalt return.”
Then along came menopause.
Menopause is the Halfway Marker on the Road to Death
I distinctly remember when my husband asked me why I was so sad about entering menopause, that I answered him by wailing, “because my womb is dying!” I was incredulous at his insensitivity (one of many other times he would display it in our marriage in the coming years I would learn), he merely chuckled at my melodrama.
And perhaps I was a bit melodramatic, given the fact that despite the deadness of my womb, I’m still very much living today – 20 years later. But it was still true. And it was signaling a bigger truth to me that I could no longer avoid – not only was my my womb dying, but my entire body was dying. I was dying. The anesthesia of my youth was beginning to wear off, and all of my illusions about death were beginning to crack. And it was disconcerting.
Now, granted, I did not spend the entire 12 years of perimenopause obsessing over death. I mean there were hot flashes to get through afterall, insomnia to deal with, vaginal dryness, heart palpitations, anxiety, mood swings, and oh, those heavy, flooding periods! I was distracted from the solemn death knell knocking at my life door by all of those symptoms of perimenopause. But though I may not have dwelt upon it in the forefront of my mind, it was always there, lurking in the background of my mind.
Life is a Spectrum of Evolution and Adapting
In the book The Estrogen Errors: Why Progesterone is Better for Women’s Health, author Susan Baxter states that:
“most doctors neither know how to identify perimenopause, nor how to manage it because what they were taught implies a clear-cut, definite break between the two recognized stages of a woman’s reproductive cycle – as though women magically switch from fertile to post-menopausal overnight, which makes no sense physiologically…….no biological phenomenon takes a quantum leap from zero to one without some intervening indication(s)” (Baxter & Prior, 2009, p. 59).
And thank God for that. Not that the medical community doesn’t understand the transition of perimenopause and how to manage it (that’s another post for another day), but that it is in fact, a transition. It is a passage. It is a bridge crossing. And menopause signals that the transition has been completed and the bridge has been crossed.
I have come to believe that the time it takes for the complete transition to occur (5 to 12 years) allows us to process and adapt to all of the changes that come wrapped up in menopause: The changes in self-identity, our physical bodies, our perceived role in culture and society, and also the looming reality of our mortality. I have also come to believe that much of the depression and sadness that women experience during perimenopause, is not just rooted in the changing physiology of our hormones. But, in the processing of the grim reality that we do not know how much longer we have to live.
In Elisabeth Kubler Ross’s book, On Grief & Grieving: Finding the Meaning of Grief through the Five Stages of Loss, she identifies that denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance, are the different stages we pass through as we process loss. And I do not know a woman yet who wouldn’t tell you that the transition from perimenopause to menopause is indeed a loss. It is a profound loss culminating in the reshaping of our lives and who we are. Passing through those stages is difficult to many women. And there is certainly a lot of denial, anger, bargaining, and depression before there is acceptance. But, none of that could occur if a continuum of time were not involved.
I’ve had a number of years now to process the change from perimenopause to menopause. I’m now in the phase of life called “post-menopause.” It’s been a slow process for me personally. I suspect that is because I’m a very introspective and reflective type of person, who is always seeking meaning in my life and my experiences. But I still sometimes feel like a stranger in my own life. I’m sure much of that has to do with the fact that I’m also currently adapting to an empty nest.
Uncomfortable Change Brings Growth
I told you in my last post that I recently re-entered the workforce at the ripe old age of 60. I stepped back into the field of accounting after nearly 20 years. That’s a looooong time for knowledge to gather cobwebs and for rust to develop. I find that I’m often stressed and uncomfortable with how hard it is to remember these concepts. My boss, who is more than half my age always says to me….”I’m glad you’re uncomfortable. Because that means you’re learning.”
And he’s right.
Another lifelong friend of mine, who also happens to be a pastor, and a personal mentor and teacher, said to me once…”If you want to grow, you have to be willing to get outside the boundaries of familiar experience.” “It’s uncomfortable,” he went on to say, “to step outside of what we know. It feels weird” Because of that, it’s tempting to run back into the familiar places of life.
But, menopause won’t allow you to do that. There’s no turning back to menstrual cycles (though who wants to do that anyway?), there’s no turning back the hands of time to our 20s, 30s, or even 40s. And that can be horribly uncomfortable. Especially when the reality of our mortality is becoming more real with each passing year.
Live Like You Were Dying
I understand that not everyone struggles with these issues the way I have. And for those readers who might find this topic morose and depressing, I apologize. But, it is a truth for so many women, and it is for those readers that I write this.
The country singer, Tim McGraw penned a song about his father when he learned that he was dying. It’s a beautiful song with very moving and powerful lyrics which completely capture how I’ve come to view life through the lens of knowing you’re going to die.
Rather than type out the lyrics, I’ve embedded the video instead. If you haven’t heard the song, take a listen. If you have heard it, listen again. None of us know how long we have to live. Even the very young die and leave us way too soon sometimes.
I’ve come to realize that getting old is a privilege, not a curse. And while I don’t enjoy aging sometimes, I’m thankful that I’m still here to do it. Menopause has taught me that I need to live as if I’m dying, because we all are.