A woman named Erin from Ann Arbor, MI recently sent me the following email:
“I am currently helping listening to my mom as she struggles with approaching retirement and redefining herself as retired woman/grandmother/etc. I would love to hear your thoughts on your blog or wherever about this transition… It is so surprising to me how similar her sadness, mourning, and life reflections are to what I went through during my engagement. I’ve been translating your work and recommendations for her to address the retirement transition and it’s provided a great deal of comfort to her.”
As she astutely wrote, transition is transition, so the emotional content of letting go of being single is exactly the same as letting go of the identity of a working person and moving into the next stage of life. In order to embrace the renewal or rebirth stage – whether it’s being married or being retired – there needs to be a conscious recognition that the current life stage and identity are ending. With this ending comes grief, reflection, and a fair amount of restlessness and floundering around in the realm of unknown as the skin of the familiar identity begins to shed but the new skin hasn’t quite grown in yet.
While I obviously have not walked through this particular transition myself, I’ve given it a great deal of thought as I’ve watched my own parents and my friends’ parents respond so differently to this later life stage than I would have expected; most older people I know have refused to slow down and retire. This is in stark contrast to people in my grandparents’ generation whose entire life was geared toward preparing for “the golden years” when they could travel, take classes, knit, garden and, at the top of their list, be grandparents. In fact, one of the most frequently told stories in my family was that my grandparents were so anxious to become grandparents that they bribed my parents into having my oldest brother; they knew my parents didn’t want to start a family until they traveled to Europe, so they told my parents they would pay for their trip if they promised to get pregnant when they returned home.
My grandparents loved being grandparents. While they worked hard during theiryounger years, neither of them strongly identified with their jobs, so I’m sure they were more than happy to jump fully into the role of grandparent when the moment arose. My grandfather identified so strongly with the role that when we would bring friends over to their house, he would introduce himself as “Grandpa”; when he was in his 70s we bought him a hoodie with the word GRANDPA printed on it and he wore it nearly every day into his nineties until it finally fell apart; also in his 70s we bought him a personalized license plate that said GRANPA7 (I guess there were 6 other GRANDPA license plates already), which he proudly made people aware of whenever it remotely came up in conversation. And my grandma was the consummate grandma, cooking delicious food for us, knitting us blankets and hats, sewing our clothes, giving me manicures, baking cookies and delicious cakes. We spent every weekend there and went camping with them for two weeks each summer. We loved being their grandkids as much as they loved grandparenting us. It was a mutually satisfying and fulfilling relationship.
While I’m sure there are many grandparents who cherish their role and dive into it completely, the model I see around me is quite different. I see older people who refuse to slow down. They may love being grandparents or may not have grandchildren yet, but regardless of that particular role they continue to work and keep themselves busy in other ways. It seems that it’s more and more difficult for people to allow themselves to retire. The meaning of the word retire – to withdraw or remove oneself – sheds more light on this changing phenomena: what does a person contemplating retirement need to withdraw or remove oneself from? From the identity of a worker, from the busyness and fullness of a working life, from familiarity of a daily routine, from the fast pace necessitated by work.
We move so quickly these days. We communicate quickly, we travel quickly, we work quickly, we eat quickly. We’re so out of touch with the natural pace of life that it makes sense we would refuse to slow down during transitions, especially the transition of retirement which requires not a temporary retraction of pace but an entire reconstruction of the speed at which life is lived. Most people move at breakneck speed until illness or the depression that accompanies transition forces them to slow down. This is a blessing when it leads to a wake-up call that inspires the person to get in touch with their emotional life.
Some transitions, like pregnancy, alter the physical body so radically that most women have no choice but to slow down. This is a blessing. I’ll never forget the woman I met in my first childbirth preparation class who shared with us that the mandatory bed rest of her third trimester, while initially cause for panic, ended up being a blessing in that it forced her to withdraw (retire) from her busy corporate life and prepared her for the slow pace of motherhood like nothing else could. When a transition doesn’t involve a physical change, the body will often communicate through illness until we take notice and, hopefully, slow down enough to decipher the coded meaning.
Most people avoid slowing down because they subconsciously sense that a cascade of memories, emotions, thoughts, dreams, and reflections live in the silence and solitude that accompany the slowed down state of non-doing. This can be especially true in the older years when the build up of memory and emotion could fill volumes. But as we often say in the world of psychology, what we resist persists, so the longer the person in transition avoids turning inward, the more persistent the physical symptoms or emotional turmoil becomes.
When a person does decide to slow down enough to retire, they may spend some time grieving for the end of the current lifestyle and identity; they may wade into the sea of memory and feel as if they’re re-living painful and joyous times in their life; they may wake up each morning awash in the realm of the watery dream world. They may feel overwhelmed for a period of time and might benefit from the support and guidance of a counselor as they navigate through the initial onslaught of inner life. But after a while, the intensity will diminish and they will find themselves happier and more at peace than they’ve ever been. And they may even find they enjoy the freedom to dwell internally, to reminisce, to dream, to write new letters and read over old ones. Once the old life is grieved and the challenging work of letting go is done, there are great boons and wondrous possibilities waiting in the golden years.
Sheryl Paul, M.A., pioneered the field of bridal counseling in 1998. She has since counseled thousands of people worldwide through her private practice, her bestselling books, “The Conscious Bride” and “The Conscious Bride’s Wedding Planner,” and her websites, www.consciousweddings.com and www.consciousmotherhood.com. She’s regarded as the international expert on the wedding transition and has appeared several times on “The Oprah Winfrey Show”, as well as on “Good Morning America” and other top television, radio, and newspapers around the globe. Phone and Skype sessions available internationally for all transitions.