Courtesy of Forbes.com | By Robert Laura | Posted 08.27.2017 | Published 09.05.2017
“You just retired, what are you complaining about?”
Those are the exact words I overheard during a recent conversation on a golf course. I’m not sure if a few beers were involved or what the full context of the conversation was, but the guy he said it too, tried to shrug it off, but walked away hanging his head low and in despair.
It’s a heart-breaking situation that plays out time-and-time again when people retire and unknowingly are affected by grief as they transition into retirement. Grief can be defined as a natural, and often painful response to a loss. It is commonly associated with the loss of a loved one or significant event like a divorce. But grief can show up in a number of other ways including loss of a job, health, financial stability, cherished dream, or sense of safety due to a traumatic experience.
When it comes to retirees, there are a number of significant loses they face:
- Loss of identity and sense of purpose
- Changes to their daily routine
- Decrease in social interaction
- Less mental stimulus and physical activity
- Loss of a paycheck
The whole topic of grief became popular back in 1969 when psychiatrist Elisabeth Kübler-Ross introduced her “five stages of grief.” What many people don’t realize is that her work was based on studies with the terminally ill, not the general public. However, over time her stages have become a popular way for people to understand their grief. For retirees, that may look and sound something like this:
- Denial: “I never really wanted to retire… I should still be working”
- Anger: “They made me retire… They wanted me out of there… So-and-so set me up”
- Bargaining: “Maybe if I just _________, I could go back (or move on)”
- Depression: “Who am I kidding, I’m worthless and always was”
- Acceptance: “I felt lost at first, but finally feel at peace with my new life”
As part of these stages, many retirees can also experience both mental and physical symptoms including: shock or disbelief, fear, anxiety, or apprehension, anger, irritability, or sadness; guilt, numbness, emptiness, depression, confusion, impaired memory, lack of concentration, wandering thoughts, nightmares, fatigue, nausea, insomnia, weight loss or gain, stomach and/or intestinal problems to name a few.
It’s a shocking list of side effects that isn’t usually included in a soon-to-be retires paperwork. It should be included when a person turns in their retirement paperwork. What’s worse is that these symptoms can become even more severe with a sudden or unexpected retirement. Whether it’s due to a company closing, health problem, or other unforeseen event, the depth of these symptoms can be magnified when a new retiree is pushed into retirement earlier than expected. Since they don’t see it coming, they can’t anticipate or at least partially prepare for the loss and are left to adjust on their own and often times with little support.
Another challenge with retirement grief is that it is often disenfranchised. In other words, it is not honored in the same way that losing a person is. Therefore, like the example above, people don’t have a way to express what they are thinking and feeling. Furthermore, because retirement is painted as this perfect time of life where everything is fun, simple and easy, their feelings are minimized instead of supported causing them to deal with grief for longer periods of time.
Truth is, retirees may not miss every aspect of their work, but they can yearn for certain things and that’s normal and okay. There is no best way to grieve and many new retirees may not even realize they are going through it. In fact, what I have found is that the toughest part of the process is balancing out the losses with the new aspects of life.
Many times, retirees will report being flooded with sadness, grief, or worry one minute, only to be replaced by the idea of planning something positive like a trip for their future. It’s a mental tug-of-war that can be frustrating at first but is healthy since it provides a new retiree the opportunity to honor the past as well as celebrate their future. Therefore, it’s important and normal to oscillate between these thoughts and feelings as part of the transition into retirement.
While these feelings can be frightening and overwhelming, they are normal reactions to loss. Accepting them as part of the grieving process is essential for healing and closure.
While there is no right or wrong way to grieve, there are plenty of healthy ways to cope with it. The key is finding and accepting support. This can come in a number of ways including family & friends, church or religious organizations, by joining a support group, talking to a therapist, coach, or grief counselor, as well as things such a writing about the loss or developing a memory book. Wherever the support comes from, connecting with new people or places as well as re-connecting with others on a different level, can go a long way in helping you overcome retirement grief.
Retirement is a major life transition that comes with endings as well as new beginnings. It means losing some things while gaining others and recognizing that the many thoughts and feelings you will experience during this time, are not only normal, but all part of the process.