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Letting Go

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In a culture that’s all about striving, attaining, and acquiring, one of life’s greatest challenges is knowing when and how to let go. It’s hard to accept loss or change and move on into something new, different, and unknown. This issue becomes central to advisors whose clients are moving into their Third Age, that of retirement, when some life choices close down and others open up. You may also be looking toward your own later years and deciding what to give up, what to continue doing, and what other changes to make. Here are some ways to deal with the difficulty of letting go.

Q: My client, a university professor for 40 years, originally agreed to retire at the end of the academic year but is now backpedaling and saying he’d like to teach a while longer. This worries his wife, who says he is slowing down and getting more stressed about his work. While they debate this, their financial planning has come to a standstill. Is there a way I can help resolve this impasse?

A: Giving up one’s professional identity after so many years is an enormous change to contemplate, particularly for men and many women who feel defined by their careers. Even if your client knows he no longer has the focus and stamina that used to come so effortlessly, letting go of that hard-won identity is bound to be a process fraught with emotion.

Is full retirement the only option? Many universities have flexible retirement policies these days. Perhaps your client could teach one course a semester which would give some structure to his life and keep him connected to what he did so well for so long. A gradual letting go would also give him time to become comfortable with the idea of stopping work, begin adjusting to the financial realities of retirement, and plan what he will do when he quits teaching completely.

In the meantime, I encourage you to join his wife in eliciting his feelings about his work and eventual retirement. What will he miss? What will he be relieved to give up? What ideas does he have about the next phase of his life? Does he have unfulfilled longings that he now would finally be free to explore?

Besides counseling patience and empathy, you might suggest to your client’s wife that when he retires, there should be some celebration to honor his impressive career. The university may well give him the accolades he deserves; but if not, she and his friends certainly can. A ceremony marking his achievements–one that might include some former (or current) students–may make letting go somewhat easier for this reluctant retiree.

Q: When my retired banker client lost the wife to whom he was devoted, he went into a deep depression that worried his adult children. Recently, he decided to take up hang gliding, which he says exhilarates him and renews his joy in living. However, the kids are having fits. They want him to stick to safe activities like golfing and teaching Sunday school. He jokes that they may not have to wait as long for their inheritance now, but asked me seriously for ideas on how to get them off his back.

A: Hang gliding is clearly a physical way of letting oneself go into the unknown. After years of structure and security, I can imagine that the risk might truly thrill your client, giving him a sense of excitement and energy that he has been missing.

I’d begin by asking him more about his motives. Where is he in his life? What made him try hang gliding? How does he feel about his children’s concerns? Is he consciously trying to defy death–or, as his kids may fear, unconsciously courting it?

If you sense either of these impulses, try to urge your client to seek professional help in dealing with his grief. But if you feel reassured about his state of mind, you might consider hosting a family meeting to discuss financial planning issues, including what the father wants his financial and emotional legacy to his children to be. You can bring up the subject of hang gliding if no one else does (although I bet someone will).

After hearing the children’s concerns, you’ll be able to validate your client’s new lease on life, emphasizing that this activity represents a good kind of letting go, not a death wish. You might suggest that his offspring would be making him a gift if they can let go of their own fears and allow him to enjoy this time as he wishes.

Q: For as long as I can remember, my client has dreamed of hiking the Appalachian Trail in retirement. I’ve been a big supporter of this goal, sending him related articles and even a book about the Trail for his 60th birthday. Now, within a stone’s throw of retiring, he’s been diagnosed with a degenerative nerve disease that will make this hike impossible. He’s devastated, saying over and over that he shouldn’t have waited so long. Even though he should be thinking about his future healthcare needs, he flatly refuses to change his retirement plan, and spends hours brooding over his lost dream. Should I just wait until he’s thinking more sensibly? How long would be normal for this?

A: This is a tremendous loss and disappointment, which, if your client can let himself be deeply sad and vulnerable instead of flagellating himself, deserves more than one good cry.

I would get together with him to talk about how shattered he must feel. Not only has he been blindsided with his own fragility and mortality, but he’s facing the death of a dream.

First, I would ask what would still be possible for him. Could he hike one or more segments of the Trail instead of the whole thing? How about a goal-oriented trip somewhere else by bicycle or motorcycle?

Try to help him see that beating himself up over the loss of his dream is only weakening him further. Tell him you can understand his being furious about this unforeseeable turn of events, but anger doesn’t need to absorb his time and energy. Let him know how sad you are that he is battling this disease, and ask if there’s anything you can do to support him.

Give him time to absorb what happens in this meeting with you. Once he feels able to mourn the loss of his long-standing goal and let it go, new dreams and goals may slowly emerge that he can fulfill.

Q: An older couple I’ll call Joe and Mary, who are friends as well as longtime clients, told me their daughter has invited them to live with her. Both close to 80, they’re financially secure and in reasonably good health. The daughter and son-in-law have a guest cottage on their Florida property where my clients could continue living independently, and there are great community activities for seniors nearby. Joe likes the offer, but Mary doesn’t want to leave their home and friends. As it stands, she will probably prevail, even though moving to be near their daughter might be a better choice in the long run. How can I help them get on the same page?

A: When I took part in a long-term care planning Webinar hosted by this magazine, I was reminded that health and longevity are improved when seniors move to a community where they can easily get to activities, be around other people with similar interests, and keep stimulated and busy. All too often, continuing to live in their old home leads to a gradual restriction of activity that leaves them more and more isolated.

I would begin with a meeting to review the financial and non-financial pros and cons of staying put versus moving to Florida to be near their daughter. Take time to explore what each parent would have to let go of under the two scenarios.

If your clients are still unable to agree, you might suggest a good couples therapist, counselor, or coach who is well versed in challenges of Third Age couples. But it’s possible that if you can empathize with both spouses’ desires, hopes, and dreams, you may help them find peace.

Q: A year or so after my client’s elderly mother was widowed, he and his siblings persuaded her to move out of a big old house into a nearby condominium. Her condo apartment is now stuffed with furniture, books, old magazines, half-unpacked boxes of mementos, and miscellaneous bric-?-brac from years past, as well as newspapers, paper bags, and tin cans that she saves because of her Depression-era childhood. She tripped and fell over some of this clutter recently, but my client hasn’t been able to persuade her to let go of it. Any ideas about how to handle this?

A: It’s amazing that your client’s mother was willing to move out of her house and into someplace new. I’m afraid, though, that persuading her to get rid of her clutter may be an unrealistic goal. This kind of hoarding behavior is deeply rooted and highly resistant to change.

You might try inviting your client to bring his mother to your office, so you can both encourage her to talk about the fears and concerns that underlie her attachment to her possessions. She may say she has to hold onto these things in case they’re ever needed, which could be a cue for you to explain the reality of her financial situation (e.g., that she is well-off enough to replace anything she may later require; or that her children have provided amply for her financial needs).

Your client may be able to persuade her to box up some things and put them into storage, or to hire an expert to make safe paths in her home, or both. But I would caution that letting go of material possessions is usually next to impossible for this kind of hoarder.

Powerful life changes force us all not only to contemplate letting go, but to learn how to do it well. However, it’s a difficult emotional process, requiring patience, courage, perseverance, and time. Habit is very comfortable; and most of us are afraid of the unknown, which often seems more like a “death space” than the creative emptiness it really can be.

So when it comes to letting go, proceed slowly, gently, and with emotional sensitivity for yourself and those around you. By embracing the unknown and the changes it offers, you have the opportunity to create a richer, deeper life.

Olivia Mellan, a speaker, coach, and business consultant, is the author with Sherry Christie of The Client Connection: How Advisors Can Build Bridges That Last, available through the Investment Advisor Bookstore at She also offers money psychology teleclasses for financial advisors and for the general public. E-mail Olivia at [email protected].