SACRAMENTO, Calif. -- Rachael Mahoney is in the midst of a decade of loss. In the last 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 aged 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 baby 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.
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."
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."
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?' "
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."