Rachael Mahoney is in the midst of a decade of loss. In the past few years, her father and her sister, her only sibling, died. Her marriage ended in divorce. And now her elderly mother's health is failing.
"It's tough," said Mahoney, 50, who works for the state and lives with her mother in Sacramento so she can care for her. "But people have gone through these things for generations. It's how we accept these circumstances that matters."
In huge numbers, the nation's 70 million baby boomers, now age 48 to 66, find themselves coping with a numbing range of expected and unexpected midlife changes, including divorce, the death of parents, the diminishment of health and youth, and these days the loss of jobs and homes as well.
The kids leave home. The body is less forgiving. Caregiving for ailing spouses and parents, although a necessity, can bring an unforeseen loss of freedom.
In many respects, loss could be considered the signature challenge of middle age. The question for boomers, a generation bred on optimism, is how to embrace the changes that occur as they launch more or less willingly into the next chapter of their lives.
"During midlife, there's a confluence of events that can create depression and a sense of despair and loss," said psychologist Douglas LaBier, who blogs on midlife issues for the Huffington Post and directs the Center for Progressive Development in Washington, D.C.
"It helps to see everything as something to learn from on our journey of evolution through life."
While some losses, such as the deaths of elderly parents, can be absorbed as an inevitable part of the cycle of life, the unanticipated losses can reverberate more deeply: the death of spouses, siblings and same-age friends, perhaps, or people's own health crises and career struggles.
In 2009, almost 22 percent of Californians in their 50s described their health status as less than good, twice the rate of people in their 30s, researchers found in the California Health Interview Survey. Other state data show that 50-year-olds were three times as likely to die that year as people a decade younger.
Almost 30 percent of Americans who lost jobs that year more than 4 million people were in the midlife age group, and they were unemployed twice as long as people in their 20s, Bureau of Labor Statistics figures show.
To put those statistics in a sunnier light, however, at least 70 percent of boomers fared well in each of those categories: It's crucial, experts say, to think of the midlife years as something more than a decade of pain.
Researchers have found that stress peaks in the middle of life but so does confidence, sense of purpose and judgment.
"We've earned and gained a lot to help us through the losses in our 50s," said Dr. Pepper Schwartz, a University of Washington sociologist and AARP's relationship expert. "We've gained wisdom. We've gained longtime friends. We've learned about loyalty. We know who we are.
"People in their 50s might want to turn back a terrible event like losing a spouse, but most of them wouldn't want to be 25 again."
Turning loss into growth
Buck Gunter, a Davis electrical contractor, tried sort of. In his 50s, he played tenor sax in a local classic rock band of boomer-age musicians named Midlife Confidential.
"When you're middle-aged, being in a band again is like having a hot rod," said Gunter, now 62. "It brought back the days of carousing all night. But it's hard to go back.
"The biggest thing was moving the equipment. We're old, and it's very heavy. Moving it and setting it up and taking it down was quite the siege."
During his 50s, he also dealt with divorce and an illness that drained his finances. Now, having survived his 50s, he has a plan for the future.
"I'm going to start my own business and play music and settle down and control my life," Gunter said.
That's part of what LaBier calls the boomer generation's reinvention of midlife a renewed sense of what's possible.
"The old thinking was that midlife was a matter of holding onto what you can through the inevitable loss and decline of the coming years," said LaBier. "But that's only half the picture.
"As a generation, boomers entered midlife with continued health, and they want to feel continued vitality. If you can embrace what happens, you'll turn what you experience into new growth."
When Pam Flohr was 50, her father died and her mother began a long descent into Alzheimer's disease. When Flohr was 55, she was diagnosed with severe arthritis. When she was 59, her husband of 18 years died after a heart attack followed by a leukemia diagnosis.
The list sounds neat, tidy and horrific. But Flohr now 67, a speech therapist and former Sacramento County Adult and Aging Commission chairman dwells instead on the life she's remade for herself.
"The 50s are so tough in so many ways that it makes the 60s look easy," she said. "Women my age are so into companionship with each other. In your 60s, the creativity blooms in so many ways, and the energy is really cool."
Even when crushing losses in midlife pile one on top of the other, said Schwartz, it's important to reflect on the lessons they bring.
"Few losses are unaccompanied by growth in wisdom or coping," she said. "We'd rewrite the script if we could. But these aren't unadulterated losses. We have to take the losses and say, 'Now who am I? Where do I find joy? Where do I help others?' "
At 53, Ruth Holton-Hodson is in the midst of several wrenching transitions: In a span of six months in 2011, both her husband and her father died.
She watched as her father, David Holton, an 80-year-old retired foreign service officer, faded over several years' time from dementia before dying in April 2011.
"You grieve over the dementia, but in the end, it was a sense of relief that it was over," said Holton-Hodson, a deputy state controller who lives in Sacramento.
As her father was dying, she cared for her husband, Tim Hodson, during his struggle with an aggressive form of brain cancer. He died in October at age 61. And now her early 50s have become a time of mourning, which she faces with a touching bravery.
"My life still seems very surreal," said Holton-Hodson. "I don't know if I've figured out yet how to go on. My guiding light is how Tim would have wanted me to live."
Over the months of her husband's illness, she found unexpected lessons in what they went through together: the importance of not peeking around the corner to worry about what came next; the need to let go of what doesn't matter; and a new appreciation for the simple comforts of ordinary life.
But Holton-Hodson said she hasn't yet found meaning in the grief that surrounds her.
"It's still too soon to know," she said.
With a list of midlife losses behind her and her mother's care ongoing, Rachael Mahoney grasps some of what she's been learning through these difficult middle years.
"A thorough knowledge of what family means," she said. "An appreciation for life. I've become closer to God. I've learned to listen."
She hopes that family members her two grown children and a small grandchild learn by watching how she's cared for her loved ones in their final years.
"I do not have regrets," said Mahoney. "That's something. I'm tired, and I'm ready to get on with my life. But I don't have regrets.
"I would have been an entirely different person if I hadn't experienced this."