For some persons, retiring from public work fulfills a nearly life-long dream. Retirement brings opportunities, perhaps long-delayed, for travel, relaxing, spending more quality time with friends and family, increasing one’s involvement in church and community life, and indulging established interests while cultivating new ones. I recall a former parishioner saying to me, “I retired early, ten years ago, and haven’t looked back once!” For persons so inclined, retirement often brings a new lease on life.
For others, retirement may prompt a different experience. Even if it brings a measure of excitement over opportunities for new experiences and relief from the daily grind of working life, retiring may also issue a deep sense of loss. Perhaps this feeling of loss involves the changes in one’s former routines. The loss may derive from less contact with valued colleagues and work-related acquaintances. Maybe one’s sense of loss revolves around modifications in lifestyle that are required for most people with a retirement income. Frequently, a sense of loss centers on uncertainty about one’s identity, sense of purpose, and feelings of accomplishment that have long been linked with one’s labors.
Among persons who mourn the loss of working life — and most people will do so to some degree even if they also welcome retirement — several strategies may prove helpful for living with retirement losses in constructive ways. We might call this an approach to “mourning well.”1
First, recognize that we grieve because we have loved and lost. Whenever we invest ourselves in something or someone, whether emotionally, spiritually, relationally, physically, intellectually, or otherwise, this investment includes a measure of affection and love. Moreover, what we love provides things that we require in life, including security, a sense of meaning and purpose, a measure of identity, and means for happiness and fulfillment. This is true even if we also have some feelings of ambivalence or dislike for what we love and invest ourselves in. Consequently, when what we love ceases to be, like when we retire, we experience a sense of loss. In this way, “losing” one’s job or career is similar to losing a person that one has loved. Life is now different. There’s a void that was once filled by something we loved and that provided us with things we need. Accepting the fact that loving and losing is a necessary part of life, including working life, is a necessary first step for moving along the path of mourning well.
Second, in accepting your loss, allow yourself to feel its magnitude and effects. Though painful and feeling unnatural for many of us, we need to allow ourselves to experience the pain of grief. Often, we do not permit ourselves to do this, assuming perhaps that our feelings are unwarranted, unacceptable, or unbecoming. This response can be particularly forthcoming in a case of retirement, especially when we hear from others how great life after work is and how fortunate we are to be able to “enjoy” it. But we benefit, when experiencing any type of loss, from allowing ourselves to feel what we feel and to accept it without attaching value judgments to it, whether our own or others’.
Large segments of society discourage this practice, minimizing loss and its effects and opting for “putting on a happy face.” Yet, as is true with any significant loss, it is perfectly reasonable that one would experience sadness, confusion, anger, and myriad other feelings that come with grief in the wake of the momentous life change that retiring typically brings. Furthermore, one should expect various periods of “ups and downs” with respect to one’s sense of loss and grief. The mourning process, which provides for grief’s relief if not its end, typically consists of ebb and flow. It is chock full of good days, better days, and not so good days too. So, embrace your sense of loss for a period of time. Sit with it and allow it to wash over you. Far from being selfish or self-indulgent, this is precisely what must occur if one is to move through the mourning process well.
Mourning also requires explicit attention to adjusting to life in the absence of what has been lost. Retirees should anticipate having to make substantial changes in their daily lives, including their routines, the places where they spend their time, the people with whom they spend it, where they find intellectual, emotional, physical, and relational stimulation and energy, and also how they contribute to other people’s lives. A useful mourning strategy is to remind oneself of the benefits of new roles and responsibilities, and how those may offer opportunities as opposed to burdens. Assuming new roles, activities, and responsibilities can feel empowering and provide a newfound sense of purpose and related self-confidence, both of which retirement can impede. Faith communities may help retirees negotiate life changes by encouraging a reorientation of life and life work that points to serving God and others in new ways.
A final suggestion is an outgrowth of the others. Mourning well requires that one eventually withdraws some of the emotional energy (or love) from what has been lost, so that one may “relocate” that loss and use one’s energy for investing in new aspects of life, relationships, vocational interests, and other passions. What must happen in mourning — and I’m speaking metaphorically here — is not that we cease to love, but that we find an “appropriate place” in our emotional lives for what we have loved and lost. When needed, we may go to this place to access the memories and emotions surrounding our loss. However, in moving our loss to another place, we create a new emotional space where other relationships and objects of our affection and concern may form and be nurtured. We may go to the special place of mourning when we want or need to, but we don’t have to live in it all the time. What we’ve lost, therefore, can remain the object of our deep love without having to remain front and center in our lives.
Ironically, mourning the loss of work itself requires work. To mourn well requires energy, attention, effort, perseverance, and commitment, much like excellence in our working life requires. This is not to suggest that mourning is exclusively work oriented. Mourning also requires time for rest, allowing others to care for and encourage us. Mourning calls for reliance upon the nurture of God and faith in order to “let go” of our pain. Nevertheless, to love and to lose requires that we work to navigate the road of mourning. Time alone does not heal. It’s what takes place during the passing of time that brings healing.
All who mourn do well to remind themselves of the powerful link between an experience of suffering a loss and the gospel’s affirmation of a suffering God, especially as reflected in Christ’s suffering on our behalf. This reminder may provide confidence that God shares in our time of loss and never abandons us to face our losses alone. The gospel promises that God travels with us throughout life’s journey, including our painful experiences. Embracing God’s promise of what JÃ¼rgen Moltmann calls uncompromised “fellow suffering” may provide all who suffer losses with a true measure of hope, namely, that no less than God recognizes us in our losses, and no less than God suffers along with us. With this embrace, the stage is set for mourning what we have lost and anticipating what is to come with courage, trust, and hope.
Allan Hugh Cole Jr. is the Nancy Taylor Williamson Associate Professor of Pastoral Care at Austin Presbyterian Theological Seminary in Austin, Texas.
1These suggestions are based loosely on the “tasks” of mourning as considered by J. William Worden. See Grief Counseling and Grief Therapy: A Handbook for the Mental Health Practitioner, 3rd ed., New York: Springer Publishing Co., 2005.