I just spent an incredible weekend with friends I have had since I was eighteen years old.  Our early years together had problems;  we worried about exams, bad haircuts, boys who didn’t call and possibly missing out on a really fun party.

In our twenties, we worried about whether we were on the right career path and how to afford the clothes, apartments and vacations we wanted.  We were either dating, engaged or getting married so bad haircuts remained an outlying concern.

Our thirties were a bit more grounded with long term partners or husbands.  Kids had arrived, days were hectic and late night parties were part of our history. There were also issues with our families of origin that had always been there but became less tolerable for us.  Sometimes, when we asked about siblings or parents, the answer was, “I don’t know.  We don’t speak.”

And then came the forties.  Yowza.  That decade needs to come with a warning.  Nobody, and I mean nobody, gets out of their forties without at least one crisis.  If you don’t believe me, work really, really hard at being trustworthy, someone a friend knows will never divulge their secrets or problems to, and you too will know of the agony of the forties.

This is what I have learned — nobody gets out trouble free.  If it isn’t your marriage, it’s your kids, if it s neither of them, it’s your finances, your parents, your job, your health or a loved one’s health.

These are trying times for everyone.  What adds to the suffering is believing you are alone in your challenge.  You are not alone, but if you feel alone, maybe you do one of three things-

  1.  You share secrets.  Don’t do that.  It hurts really badly.  If someone is telling you something about their marriage, family, kids, job or health, take it to the grave.
  2. You don’t want to “contain.”  When we have a burden on our back, we want to share it.  It lightens the load, makes us feel better and sometimes nothing makes things better but a good listener helps.  You can’t cure cancer, pay someone’s mortgage or improve their marriage, but you can listen.  If it is too much to hear someone’s challenges, you might deflect them with platitudes like, “I’m sure things will turn around,” or “that happened to a friend of mine, and she…”  Just listen.
  3. You aren’t an active listener–ding, ding, ding, this is me, my problem, something I am resolving to fix.  When a friend shares financial struggles, don’t do what I do, and start bringing up news stories about how incomes have remained flat.  When someone shares their husband’s infidelity with you, don’t offer advice or suggestions about what they can do.  The very best people in the world, whom I am very lucky to know, say these two things:  “I am so sorry.” and “That is so difficult.”  They say them over and over again as you tell your story, “I’m so sorry you are going through such a difficult time.”  They can say it ten times, and all ten times it feels really good — like they really care and are just letting you have your moment when you just want to feel sad.  Tomorrow, you will get to fixing it.  Today, you just want to be sad.

One thing I have learned that seems so counter intuitive is, if someone starts crying, don’t put your arm around them.  Don’t sit next to them.  You can hand them a box of tissues.  That’s it.  Apparently, the other gestures are our way of saying, “Okay, you can stop now.  I need you to stop crying now.”  I know, it seems weird, but a good cry is a good cry, and who wants to interrupt someone’s good cry?

If you are in your forties or know someone who is, buy the four pack of tissues. I just turned fifty and wish I could go back to caring about my hair.