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Retirement: From Grief to Growth

leadership transition retirement Apr 16, 2024

- By Sophie Pinkoski

Most people avoid using the word "retirement" when it comes to their own careers. The reality is that retirement marks a significant life transition, one that is often accompanied by a complex array of emotions. Preparing to leave a career spanning decades can stir up feelings of grief, long before your actual departure. This anticipatory grief is a natural response to the loss of something that has defined a significant part of your life. Gallup has even found that 55% of workers’ identities are tied to their job. The authority, responsibility and routine that you have become accustomed to for many years prior to your retirement can be hard to let go of. When you lose these most fulfilling aspects of your career life as you head into retirement, you will have to find ways to fill the void you’ve left behind.

It takes time and careful preparation to build up the next chapter in your life.

Whether retiring by choice or necessity, your emotional journey is real and valid, and it’s important to acknowledge it within this transitional phase.

Here are ways to manage your grief as you head into your post-career life:

Allow yourself time to process your grief–– In 1969, Swiss psychiatrist, Elisabeth Kübler-Ross first defined the five stages of grief (denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance). She theorized that our minds create defense mechanisms to prevent us from becoming overwhelmed when facing a significant loss in our lives. Our bodies know what we can handle at once and will compartmentalize our reactions as we process difficult new realities. In the face of grief, we seek to understand our emotional responses before finally accepting them.

We ordinarily associate grief with death, but the grief you experience in anticipating wrapping up your career is just as valid.

In fact, it is found that 1 in 3 retirees experience depression as they come to make sense of their new lifestyle. It's important to mourn the loss of what you had so you can move forward into your best life. This is where putting together a toolbox of coping mechanisms will come in handy as you navigate your emotions. Taking time for self-care, reflection, and reliance upon your support system is key for coming to terms with your retirement quickly in a way that protects your mental health.

Address your needs–– In managing your stages of grief, it’s important to keep your needs as a top priority. Life coach Tony Robbins defines the six human needs as certainty, variety, significance, connection, growth, and contribution. You will have likely received many of these through your job, but in your retirement, you will likely have to find new ways to fulfill your needs. Take a holistic approach to your transition period by leaning on your support system. Human connection will be one of the biggest aspects of your role you’re leaving behind. Make and keep connections with people you can trust in this period of your life. Find like-minded people who understand what you’re going through; people who have or are currently living this shared experience.

Retirement can be isolating as you move on from the social aspect of your old routine.

Nurture those relationships you value most and don’t be afraid to ask for help when you need it.

Plan your retirement realistically–– You’re likely most looking forward to all the free time you have set aside for your career. How are you going to spend your newfound time? Treating your retirement as an extended holiday won’t be realistic or sustainable as you approach day 100 of your retirement and beyond. Golf and grandchildren are great but what will fill you up with a sense of meaning?

You have the power to intentionally build a meaningful new lifestyle full of purpose.

The more you align your activities with your personal values, the more you can prioritize the things you love most. Clarify what you want to achieve with your flexible time, then put plans into place that you can act on to fulfill your goals. There are ways you can stay active in your field in a more casual way, while also taking time to decide what you want to do next. Balance your time between your current healthy habits and exploring new ones to build a productive, fulfilling, yet still relaxing new routine.

Dedicate time to rediscovery and things you love–– Retirement can be an empowering chapter full of endless possibilities. Your time is now all yours, and it’s completely up to you what you do with it. Coming into this new reality after a hectic work life can seem daunting.

This is a time for discovering who you are now that your career is no longer a defining aspect of your identity.

Start from where you are now to determine the person you want to become. Part of this will be finding new ways to recontextualize your existing skills, while another is prioritizing the things you love. Think about the things you’ve always wanted to do, but never had the time to pursue. Approach this phase with curiosity by exploring new hobbies and keeping open minded to opportunities you never would have considered before. Don’t worry about being good at new things right away. You’ve been the resident expert for so long; now is the time to let loose and enjoy doing things for the joy of it. One door may have closed for you, but so many others are wide open now too.

Retirement is not just an end but a new beginning, full of opportunities for growth and happiness. By acknowledging and managing the grief associated with leaving your job, you can embrace this transition with optimism and resilience. Remember to be kind to yourself, stay connected with others, and pursue activities that bring meaning and joy to your life. Retirement is a journey, and with the right mindset and support system, it can be a fulfilling and enriching chapter in your life story.


Further Reading

Six Secrets to Prepare for Retirement: It’s Not Just About the Money, Cam Taylor, The Good Grief Journey  

Understanding Grief and Mourning the Loss of Your Work Life in Retirement, Forbes

The Emotional Shock of Retirement, WebMD

To the Moon and Back, The Afterlife of a CEO, IMD

Grieving the Loss of a Work Identity, Forbes

Why Retirement Grief is a Thing... And How to Avoid It, Goodmans Financial Planning

Why We Can Grieve for a job Loss Before It’s Even Happened, Ellie Rich-Poole

Grieving For Your Career and How to Move On, Future U Coaching

The Five Stages of Grief: An Examination of the Kübler-Ross Model, Psycom

How the Five Stages of Grief Can Help Process a Loss, Very Well Mind

How To Head Off A Post-Work Identity Crisis, Forbes

How To Cope With The Loss Of Identity When Facing A Career Pivot, Forbes

Making Sense of the Future After Losing a Job You Love, Harvard Business Review      

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