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.