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Why retirement grief is a thing… and how to avoid it

Getting your finances in order is a crucial step in securing a good retirement, but it’s just as important to find your new sense of purpose for this next stage of life.

Couple riding bikes on a promenade

Retirement is something to look forward to, right? After a lifetime of working, your time is finally all yours and you get to choose what you do next. It’s a great achievement and an exciting new chapter of your life.

But, with such a blank canvas ahead, retirement can be hard to enjoy if you don’t have a clear sense of purpose. No matter how you feel about leaving the world of work, it’s difficult to put aside a part of your life that’s been there and defined you for so long.

You may think of grief as something that happens when you lose someone you love, but the same emotions can also play out when you wrap up your working life.

Losses in retirement

When you look at retirement as a series of losses, it’s easy to see how grief can translate to this stage of life.

The most obvious thing you lose when you stop working is a regular salary and related benefits. But you’ll also say goodbye to the authority and responsibilities that come with the job, plus the mental stimulation and physical activity. Losing structure to your day can also be difficult, especially if you thrive off routine or a busy schedule. Then there’s the social element, as you’ll have lost a main reason to regularly interact with other people.

For better or worse, retirement represents a loss of the identity and sense of purpose that you’ve held over the last several decades. It's life, but not as you know it. What you’re gaining – time and freedom – may be priceless, but it can be a jarring transition, and a challenge to enjoy over the long-term. You may already have plans for day one of retirement, but do you know what you’ll be doing on day 100, or 1,000, or even 10,000?

The retirement grief cycle

You’ve probably heard about the five stages of grief as a common emotional journey people experience after a significant loss. Developed by psychiatrist, Elisabeth Kübler-Ross, during her 1969 study of terminally ill patients, the same emotions can also apply to people mourning the loss of their professional identity:

  • Denial – “I can’t believe I’ve retired, I’m not a pensioner! I’m not sure I have enough to live off, but it’s probably fine… or maybe work will take me back...”
  • Anger – “Why was I pressured to retire? Now I don’t know what to do, and I might run out of money. This must be someone else’s fault – I didn’t ask for this.”
  • Depression – “This isn’t going to work. I’ve made a mistake. What’s the point in making plans as I probably can’t afford it now anyway?”
  • Bargaining – “What if I go back to work? Then I could save more so I can have a better retirement later on. If only I put more away when I had the chance…”
  • Acceptance – “This isn’t so bad, look at all the time I have to focus on the things I actually want to do. How can I make the most of this?”

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Finding your purpose in retirement

The good news is that, with sensible planning, you can come to terms with your new identity and fast forward straight to the final stage of acceptance. A useful starting point in defining your purpose for the next stage of your life is asking these key questions:

1. What do you enjoy doing?

In retirement you have more time for the hobbies and interests that you used to have to fit in around work, or never got the chance to try. You’ll have plenty of scope to pick up that paintbrush, visit that vineyard, climb that mountain or enrol on that course.

2. What are you good at?

After spending years honing your skills and experience in your career, are you ready to just stop or would you like to apply these in retirement? You might want to keep one foot in the professional world or maintain a similar routine to before, perhaps through volunteering.

3. How can you stay connected with people?

Without a work structure, it can be harder to maintain social interaction, and plenty of retirees feel isolated as a result. Spending time with family and friends is key, but you can also join clubs and take other steps to meet like-minded people.

4. How can you best nurture your relationships?

Something that may not seem immediately obvious is making sure your purpose aligns with those close to you. If what you do doesn’t complement what others around you want and need, that’s a recipe for a relationship breakdown, so be considerate and generous with your time.

5. How can you maintain your wellbeing?

There’s little point planning for a long retirement if you’re unable to enjoy it. Health is an important part of wealth, so make sure your long-term plan includes keeping both your body and mind active in your retirement years. And don’t put the fun stuff off until it’s too late!

Lining up a good retirement

At Goodmans, we work with you to articulate and achieve your purpose through life-focused financial planning. Before we go anywhere near the number crunching, we help you define your goals so you can prepare emotionally and practically, as well as financially, for the best years of your life.

Find out more in our guide, The retirement jigsaw: a 7-piece puzzle, or book a call to have a chat.

Fernanda de Gouveia